How To Form A New Chevra Kadisha
Rebutting objections to forming or joining a burial society--and practical steps on how to do so.
Reprinted with permission from Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Perspective (Ktav).The author makes a few assumptions about Jewish communities from his perspective as an Orthodox rabbi (e.g. that a rabbi will be male), but his heartfelt and practical advice is applicable to Jews across the spectrum.
No Reasons Not To
Most congregations do not have a chevra kadisha of their own, thus missing out on all the advantages its existence provides. I have heard many reasons given for
not having a chevra, and I think that all of them are quite groundless. Let me give you some examples:
- "Why should I do this work? What's in it for a young person? Death is easier for old people to handle." WRONG. Everybody is vulnerable to death's intrusion, young and old alike. And everybody feels enriched by the importance of this loving and holy work. Why should such feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction be withheld from the young?
- Modern, educated, Western people are squeamish and uncomfortable around the dead. WRONG. This is only a prejudice. They merely think that they will be unable to get used to performing this task. After one or two sessions, the initial discomfort and squeamishness will almost always disappear.
- There is no room in a chevra kadisha for a person who genuinely will never be able to do hands-on work with the dead. WRONG. Members of a chevra kadisha have many tasks. Some will merely sit with a gentile driver of the hearse. Some will be in the same room as the deceased, without direct contact, merely "watching." Some, like kohanim [those descended from the ancient priests, who traditionally are forbidden to have contact with corpses except for immediate family members], will have no contact with the dead whatsoever. But they can phone other volunteers, arrange rides to the cemetery, organize the minyan in the house of mourning, prepare meals for the bereaved, and help the mourners in all kinds of ways. Everybody can play a useful role as a member of the chevra kadisha.
- Hands-on work with the dead requires pious volunteers who are strictly observant. WRONG. This is the ideal situation. But if strictly observant volunteers are not available, great merit accrues to all Jewish volunteers.
- It is better to leave the work to professionals. Ignorant amateurs are bound to make unforgivable mistakes. WRONG. After a while, the work will come to be quite routine. There are very few unforeseen circumstances. Even if they do arise, you can always call a knowledgeable rabbi. And anyway, who says that even professionals never make mistakes? We all do, and that is why even the most skilled and experienced chevra kadishas ask the deceased for forgiveness in a standard formula after each preparation for burial.