"For dust thou art and to dust thou shall return." - Genesis
Many people fear death or believe death is a taboo subject and therefore
avoid discussing or planning for the most unavoidable event of life.
Judaism, however, teaches that death is an integral part of a person's life
and the rituals and customs that relate to death are initiated at the moment of
At a time when an individual may be too distraught to make any decisions at
all, the community is available to carry out the rituals.
At the moment of death, the soul is believed to have left the body.
Nonetheless, the vacant body - called the Met - is continued to be treated as a
person: someone deserving of sanctity and dignity.
Because the Met is to be treated with respect and dignity, Judaism has
prohibitions against such common practices as cremation and embalming.
It is the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, that cares for the Met
between death and burial. Under traditional circumstances, a Jewish body is
usually buried within 24 hours. Therefore the events that lead up to the burial
"Once a person is pronounced dead, the body is brought to Burns Kish Funeral
Home in Munster. The funeral home contacts the Chevra Kadisha and we call
together the members of the committee," said Nancy Feldman of Munster, co-chair
of the women's Chevra Kadisha with Ursula Fruehauf also of Munster.
If the deceased is a man, a separate male committee is contacted.
Feldman said the usual order of Taharah begins when the women meet at the
funeral home. They dress in protective clothing that includes high rubber
boots, latex gloves and physicians coats.
A supply of Tachrichim, burial shrouds, is stored at Burns Kish.
"When we enter the room, we bring the shrouds with us. Once we enter the
room, we close the door and we don't exit until we are done," Feldman said,
adding that there should be no distractions once the process of Taharah,
"In the room we have our own buckets with the Star of David on them. We have
a hose with a nozzle that attaches to the sink and we have washcloths and
sponges," Feldman said.
The body they will be caring for is usually in the room and lying on a
7-foot wooden slab on top of a table and covered with a sheet.
After a candle is lit and left burning - the body is washed beginning with
the head, then the neck, the right side of the body and then the left side of
but never face down, to wash the back. Fingernails, toenails and hair
The ritual of Taharah, purification, is performed by pouring about 24
quarts of water over the entire body in a continuous stream.
Throughout the process, the committee is expected to keep as much of the
body covered as possible - especially the face. Although this is
extraordinarily difficult, the effort is expected to be made in deference to
"You try not to expose the face," said Ursula who explained that once the
soul has left the body it is vacant. The Met lacks the ability to return a look
or choose to look away or cover himself/herself and is therefore vulnerable.
Once the body has been dried, the committee dresses it in simple white
cotton or linen burial shrouds called Tachrichim. The garments include pants
that cover the feet, a top with sleeves that cover the hands, a bonnet, an
apron, a netting to cover the face and a small linen bag. The bag will hold
strands of hair that may have fallen out during the washing and combing.
"Anything (physical) taken from the body is supposed to be put in the
casket," Feldman said and added that if the body had been embalmed before being
placed in the Taharah room, the blood that was drained is given to the
committee in bottle. That bottle is put in the casket.
The Tachrichim are white to symbolize purity. Special bows are tied at the
neck, wrists, ankles and waists. These bows form the Hebrew letter "Shin."
"It stands for 'Shechina' which is your soul's relationship to God," said
Ursula and she added that it is a symbol of spirituality.
The simplicity and uniformity of the burial shrouds is also a way to
emphasize that in death, the rich and the poor stand before God as equals.
"Everyone is born equally and everyone dies equally," Ursula said.
Throughout the procedure, prayers and blessings are read aloud. When the
women place the body in the casket, a small amount of sand is also placed in
the casket. Sometimes people plan beforehand to have a bag of Israeli earth put
in the casket with them.
Then the casket is closed and is not opened again.
A Shomer for a man or Shemirah (a watcher) for a woman sits near the closed
casket and reads psalms until the funeral which takes place usually within 24
Feldman, who has been volunteering with the Chevra Kadisha for about 11
years, said her work with the burial society is not uncomfortable, nor scary.
Sometimes she makes it a point to visit the home of the mourners to comfort
them and tell them their loved one was peacefully laid to rest.
"I've developed an understanding of my own mortality," Feldman said. "I had
always feared death. This has strengthened my spirituality. It's a peaceful