Have you ever wondered what happens at the end of life? Most of us think about it from time to time – especially as we get older.
Death is a natural part of life, but we often push thoughts of it away for many reasons. There are practical things we do to prepare for our deaths – like making a will, or a durable medical power of attorney, and financial power of attorney. Some people have even bought a burial plot, and paid for their funeral services in a pre-arrangement with a funeral home. But few people may have given thought to one of the essential parts of death for Jewish people – how our bodies will be treated and taken care of after we have died.
We have such an intimate connection to our own bodies – we wash ourselves, dress ourselves and brush our hair, trim our nails – and do this all our lives for as long as we possibly can. For some of us, as we become much older or infirm, others help to do these personal tasks for us – and we rely on people’s kindness and respect for these things. In Jewish tradition, people’s bodies are also treated with kindness and respect after they die, by a group of people from the community who care for their fellow Jews in a process called tahara. This Chevra Kadisha group (meaning sacred society) prepare people’s bodies after death – by washing them two times (first to cleanse, second to purify), brushing their hair, trimming their nails, and dressing them in clean white linens (that look like loose pajamas) then placing them gently into a coffin (a plain pine box by tradition). Women take care of women, men take care of men. As well, while this process is happening, the people quietly say prayers or sing sacred songs with the mindset that the deceased person’s soul is still “there” and they are worthy of tenderness and gentle care. This mitzvah is seen as the ultimate kindness, as there is no way the deceased person can thank or repay us. They are completely vulnerable to us – and we treat them with respect and honor.
This process is very different to the typical current modern American process that some funeral homes may provide. In tahara no preservation process is used (no embalming, no dressing in street clothes etc.) The goal of a traditional Jewish burial is for the person to return to the earth in as natural a manner as possible.
If you would like to talk about having a tahara as part of your burial process you may speak with your funeral home about arranging it in advance. For more information you can also speak to Ellen Leger at AgeWell at 412-422-0400.