Preparing the Body for Jewish Burial
Jewish tradition is very clear that the human body is considered sacred and holy. It even suggests that the “human body is the vessel for a holy human life.” The body of the deceased is compared to an impaired Torah scroll which is no longer useable, but it still retains its holiness. Due to this sacredness, their are some Jewish customs related to handling the body after death.
Chevra Kadisha - Jewish Burial Society
In general Jewish people work together as a community and show a dedication to helping each other.
After the death of a loved one, the responsibilities of the immediate family change. The parents, siblings, spouse, and children of the deceased are to focus on comforting each other, grieving, and making the arrangements of the funeral.
The responsibility of preparing the body for burial falls onto a chevra kadisha and the funeral director. Chevra kadisha translated literally means “holy society”, and it is a group of volunteers who prepare the body for burial. At least one chevra kadisha exists for every Jewish community. The two main responsibilities of a chevra kadisha is to cleanse the body and dress it for burial while following strict procedures and reciting traditional prayers and psalms.
Tahara - Cleansing of the Body
The actual washing and cleansing of the body is referred to as the tahara. The chevra kadisa strips the body of all clothes and covers it with a white sheet. They begin an initial washing with cold water while saying a biblical psalm that mentions the organ being cleaned. For example, “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies” (Song of Solomon 7:2).
After a second round of washing is completed, the body will be dressed in the tachrichim which is a simple linen or muslin garment. However, this occurs under the most traditional of customs; today many Jewish families to just dress their loved one in a somber suit or dress. A tallit, or prayer shawl, may be placed around the shoulders of a Jewish man. If so, the tzitzit, or corner fringe of the shawl, is cut as a symbol of how the death has effectively removed the Mitzvot responsibilities he carried during his lifetime.
Shmira refers to guarding of the deceased’s body after death and until burial. A shomer, or “watchman” stays with the body at all times and recites prayers and psalms. The purpose of shmira is three fold:
1) Show respect to the deceased’s body by not leaving it unattended like a useless vessel
2) Guard the body from rodents and insects
3) Many Jewish families believe that the spirit of the deceased hovers in close proximity to the body; so this is seen as a very important time to compassionately intercede in the transition of the soul.
Simcha Paull Raphael, in Jewish Views of the Afterlife:
"Shmira is a process of soul-guiding; the contemplative nonverbal communication between the world of the living and the realm of the discarnate soul. Sitting in front of the deceased, reciting Psalms, one should hold an attitude of a loving connection with the person who has died. The task requires trusting intuition and one's inner voices, listening inwardly for a response, and being attentive to synchronistic, meaningful experience. Soul-guiding is not a science; it is an art."
Raphael, Paull Simcha, Jewish views of the afterlife, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; Second Edition 2009.
Spiro, Ken, “Part 10: Jewish family & responsibility”, accessed 2014.
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, "Guide to Jewish funeral practices," 2013.
Gilad, E. (2015). A guide to Jewish death and mourning rituals. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/a-guide-to-jewish-death-and-mourning-rituals-1.5391768
Jewish Funeral Guide. (2018). Preparation for Jewish burial: treatment of the remains. Retrieved from http://www.jewish-funeral-guide.com/tradition/remains.htm