The Chevra Kadisha is a Jewish funeral services organization that works with Jewish funeral homes to prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial. It is often requested to have certain services such as the Tahara or Shmira handled by this group since many families consider it an honor to have their loved ones’ bodies cared for by the Chevra Kadisha.
History of the Chevra Kadisha
Typically, the Chevra Kadisha, which translates to “holy society,” is composed of volunteers who care for the deceased’s body until the funeral service. This tradition dates back to ancient times, when Jews were persecuted and not allowed to have their own cemeteries.
At that time, the Chevra Kadisha would watch over the bodies until internment in a proper cemetery. The group’s goal was to ensure that the bodies of the deceased were treated with respect and that proper funeral rites were observed, even in the face of danger and persecution.
What the Chevra Kadisha Does
The Chevra Kadisha’s mission is to see that preparation is in accordance with Jewish tradition. They manage the ceremonial washing known as “Tahara.” At the funeral director’s request, they will dispatch a team of men or women, depending upon the gender of the decedent, to the chapel where they bathe the decedent in a mikvah, reciting psalms and prayers to elevate the soul.
Additionally, while making funeral arrangements for a loved one, many families will ask for a “watcher” without really knowing the reason behind having one. Many years ago, a watcher was assigned to “watch” a body just in case the person was not actually dead, as the tests for death were not as certain as they are today. There was also the risk of the body being stolen for medical study by anatomists.
Neither of these reasons applies today, yet a watcher may still be requested by an uninformed family that is not observant. Having a “watcher” or “shomer” is rooted in the belief that upon the death of a Jewish person, the soul will separate from the body that housed it. As it cannot ascend to heaven until the burial of the body, the interval that it is hovering is a turbulent time, and the soul needs comforting. A “shomer” performing “shmira” keeps vigil, reciting psalms and prayers that help elevate the soul and prepare it for ascension to heaven, for judgment.
Overall, the Chevra Kadisha is a vital part of the Jewish community and provides additional services to the faith other than preparation for burial. The group also helps care for the deceased’s loved ones in their time of need. Those seeking solace can access a list of grief-related resources and educational materials on the National Association of Chevra Kadisha website.
Why Jewish Individuals Choose the Chevra Kadisha
Where more reform families are less likely to choose this Tahara washing, those who are very observant will insist upon it. The reason they do is the belief that the soul, upon death, will ascend to heaven to be judged. This judgment is impacted favorably by having been prepared in accordance with Jewish tradition. The soul is not only judged; it is also acting as an “ambassador” for those left behind. The more favorable the judgment, the better things will go for the family and friends of the decedent.
In many instances, when reform families learn the meaning behind these beliefs, they choose to have Tahara performed.
Working with the Chevra Kadisha
Star of David Memorial Chapels on Long Island, New York, can work with the Chevra Kadisha if their services are requested when determining the specifics of the funeral. If a family wants to follow true Jewish tradition, we will contact the Chevra Kadisha to perform the Shmira or the Tahara in our mikvah, located in our preparation room. Please get in touch with us at 631-454-9600.