The Shroud

Simple white shrouds democratize death and protect the poor from embarrassment.

By

Excerpted with permission from Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, & Mourn as a Jew (Schocken Books).

The traditional clothing for burying the dead are tachrichim, simple white shrouds. Their use dates back to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel II, who, in the second century of the Com­mon Era, asked to be buried in inexpensive linen garments. The custom–which set both a decorous minimum and a limit on ostentation–has been followed by observant Jews ever since: "Whoever heaps elaborate shrouds upon the dead transgresses the injunction against wanton destruction. Such a one disgraces the deceased."

The universal use of shrouds protected the poor from embar­rassment at not being able to afford lavish burial clothes. Since shrouds have no pockets, wealth or status cannot be expressed or acknowledged in death. In every generation, these garments reaffirmed a fundamental belief in human equality.

Shrouds are white and entirely hand-stitched. They are made without buttons, zippers, or fasteners. Tachrichim come in muslin or linen, fabrics that recall the garments of the ancient Hebrew priesthood. There is little difference in appearance or cost between them; the funeral home may or may not offer a choice.

Tachrichim come packaged in sets for men and women. Regardless of gender, they include shirt, pants, a head covering, and a belt. Men may also be wrapped in a kittel, a simple, white ceremonial jacket that some Jews wear on Yom Kippur, at the Passover seder, and under the wedding canopy.

If the body has been prepared for burial with tahara [ritual purification], the body will automatically be dressed in tachrichim. Jewish funeral homes and hevra kaddishas [sacred burial societies] have a supply on hand, and the cost may be covered by their honorarium. If you are in an area where there is no Jewish funeral home or burial society, the local mor­tuary may permit you to prepare the body according to Jewish law. A Jewish funeral home in the nearest city can send a set of shrouds by overnight mail.

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Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include The New Jewish Baby Book, Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

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