National Association of Chevra Kadisha

What is A Jewish Burial?

Dignity for the Body Peace for the Soul

When a person dies, their neshama, their soul, hovers around their body. The neshama is the essence of the person — their consciousness, as well as the totality of their thoughts, deeds, experiences, and relationships. The body was the neshama’s home, and the neshama cannot move on to the Eternal World until its body has been properly buried.

While Jewish mourning customs are attuned to the needs of mourners, until burial, the foremost concern is for the feelings of the deceased, whose soul is in distress and uncertainty at this time of transition. How we treat the body and how we behave around it must reflect how we would act around the person themselves at this crucial moment.

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The best way to assure authentic Jewish burial is to contact an Orthodox chevra kadisha (Jewish Burial Society).

 

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The Chevra Kadisha /
Burial Society

Preparing a fellow Jew for burial is an especially great mitzvah

The term Chevra Kadisha literally means “Sacred Society,” a designation unique to this group. Throughout Jewish history, being a member of the Chevra Kadisha has been a great honor. Members of the Burial Society are selected for their character, integrity and personal devotion to Jewish tradition.

These men and women are on-call 24 hours a day to perform Tahara and to ensure that the laws and traditions of Jewish burial are properly provided. Their greatest concern is the dignity of the deceased. Men care for men, women care for women, Jew cares for fellow Jew. There is no better way to ensure the dignity of the body, and the peace of the soul, than to entrust their care to the Chevra Kadisha.

Shmira/Vigil

From the moment of death to the moment of burial the body is never left alone.

Now, more than ever, the body deserves respect. After all, the soul has a real awareness of the body, and knows exactly how it is being treated. It would be insensitive to leave the body alone, unattended, as if it were an object being discarded now that it is no longer useful. Arrangements for a shomer, a guard, should therefore be made. These watchmen stay with the body day and night, reciting passages from the Book of Psalms. This gives great comfort to the neshama while it waits for the body’s burial and its own journey to the Eternal World.

Tahara / Preparation

The body leaves the world the way it entered

Just as a newborn is washed and dressed when it enters the world, so is a person washed and dressed when they leave the world. In fact, the neshama is about to enter the Next World, a spiritual world. Moreover, a core Jewish belief is that the soul will ultimately reunite with its body and re-enter this world at the time of resurrection. The traditional Jewish preparation of the body is called Tahara, and is performed by members of the Chevra Kadisha. During the Tahara, the body is gently washed and clothed in accordance with Jewish law and custom.

The Tahara is both physical and spiritual, and is performed in an atmosphere of reverence. Prayers are offered, requesting forgiveness for the deceased and eternal peace for their soul. The body is treated with the care and respect befitting its status as the earthly home
of an eternal soul. While Tahara requires the body to be made as presentable as possible, attempts to create a life-like appearance through artificial means, such as embalming or applying cosmetics, are inappropriate, and contrary to Jewish law.

Tachrichim / Shroud

Dressing for a personal Yom Kippur

 The neshama is about to enter the World of Truth. In that world, whatever material wealth it may have amassed is of no importance; it enters that world accompanied only by its own good deeds. For this reason, every Jew, wealthy and poor alike, is buried in an identical set of simple white clothes. Burial shrouds, which consist of a shirt, pants, jacket, belt, as well as foot and head coverings, are made of white linen, and sewn by hand. They contain no pockets or cuffs because none of our worldly belongings will accompany us to the Next World.

The neshama will stand before G-d on its personal Day of Atonement, and the shrouds are the most appropriate clothes for this occasion. They are modeled after the uniform worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, for the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple, when he prayed for the atonement and the needs of his family and the Jewish people.

Aron / Casket

Allowing the body’s natural return to the earth to be as quick as possible

From dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19

This verse guides us in selecting a casket. The casket must be made of a material that facilitates the body’s natural return. For this reason, caskets are made of wood, not metal, and several holes are made at the bottom to hasten the body’s return to the earth. When vaults are required, they should be made of concrete, and should also be open to the earth at the bottom.

At the funeral home and throughout the funeral service, Jewish law requires the casket to remain closed. It is both undignified and disrespectful for the deceased to be “viewed.”

Kevura / In-Ground Burial

Returning the body to the earth

The dust returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to G-d, who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:7

The neshama’s return to its spiritual Source is dependent upon — and comes after — the body’s return to the ground. Jewish law therefore requires burial take place as soon as possible.

Moreover, burial must be directly in the ground, to allow the body’s return to the earth. Family members and friends help fill the grave completely until a mound is formed, marking it as a place which is sacred. In so doing, they perform their final act of kindness for the deceased, taking part in helping both body and soul return to their source. Entombment in a mausoleum, which leaves the body above-ground, is prohibited.

Needless to say, cremation, during which the body is burned and the remaining bones ground to powdery ash, is forbidden. An act rooted in paganism, cremation is the harshest form of indignity to the body.

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From mourning rituals to Kaddish to the afterlife, find the information you need here.

01

Burial & Funeral

Jewish rituals, laws and traditions surrounding death and burial are holy, complex, and healing. Learn more here.

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02

Cremation

Though Jewish law forbids cremation, 50% of US Jews are cremated. NASCK provides alternatives.

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03

Death & Afterlife

What happens when someone dies? Find resources on Jewish belief on death and the afterlife.

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04

End of life decisions

Planning for death makes it easier for loved ones. Find information on Halachic Living Wills, Halachic Wills, Mourning and Burial Procedures here.

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05

Kaddish

Kaddish is a sacred ritual that honors loved ones after they have passed. Learn more about this prayer here.

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06

Shiva, Mourning & Grief

How do Jews mourn? How do I honor my loved one? What does Judaism say about grief?

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