Preparation for Burial
By Ariel Scheib
Once a person passes away in Jewish tradition, much preparation goes into cleaning the body to prepare it for burial. Every step of the preparation for burial is done out of deep honor for the deceased. It is the living’s way of paying their last respect to the one who has recently departed.
The community must first assemble a hevra kadisha (“holy society”) that is responsible for following the Jewish customs in preparing the body for burial. Once the hevra kadisha has been chosen, they must wash and purify the body in a ceremony known as Tahara. The body is placed on a long board, with the feet facing the door, and the body washed with warm water. This is to symbolize the releasing of impurity from the body. At the same time, the hevra kadisha recites Biblical verses. The final act of purification comes when the body is held in an upright position, and warm water is poured over the entire body. It is common for members of a hevra kadisha to fast on the seventh of Adar (day of Moses' death) to be cleansed of any disrespect they might have shown the deceased. Jewish tradition does not permit embalming or the use of cosmetics on the deceased.
Once this act has been completed, the body of the deceased is dried and wrapped in a simple shroud (tachrichim). This shroud was introduced by Rabbi Gamaliel, to symbolize that every Jew is equal before God. The shroud is made from simple white cotton to symbolize purity. A man’s shroud can also consist of his tallit. All adornments from the tallit are taken, and one of the four fringes (tzitzit) of the tallit is cut, indicating the deceased is no longer required to perform rituals.
After death, the deceased body is never left unattended. Doing so is considered sign of disrespect. Until the actual burial, someone (this person is called a shomer) must sit by the body, reciting Psalms.
In Genesis it states, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (3:19). In ancient times, Jews use to bury their dead without the use of a coffin (aron). This was to symbolize the returning to the Earth and dust. In Israel today, many people are still buried directly in the ground. However, in many western countries, local law requires a body to be buried in a coffin. Traditional and Orthodox Jews use a plain wooden coffin to again symbolize purity. The coffin tends to be made out of soft wood, which decomposes quickly, or holes are drilled into the bottom of the coffin, for the deceased body to make contact with the dirt. Before the coffin is closed, sacred books and dirt from Israel (for those deceased not being buried in Israel) are often placed beside the body. Dirt from Israel is also symbolic of the future resurrection of the Jews once the Messiah appears.
Source: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004; Kolatch, Alfred J. The Jewish Book of Why/The Second Jewish Book of Why. NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1989; Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991