How To Form A New Chevra Kadisha

Rebutting objections to forming or joining a burial society--and practical steps on how to do so.

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- Chevra kadisha work is a tradition handed down the generations, through family connections. Outsiders need not apply. WRONG. There is no mystery or secret lore surrounding the work. The tasks are relatively simple, and can be learned by anybody.

- The training is exacting and exceedingly time-consuming. WRONG. Only one or two orientation sessions and a single demonstration are required. You will be given a printed summary of procedures. You will then "learn on the job."

- The work itself is time-consuming. WRONG. The preparation of the deceased person for burial takes no more than an hour--­much less, as the number of workers increases.

- "I can't take time off from work to do the necessary tasks." WRONG. You do not have to. The preparation can be done at night after work, or early in the morning before work.

- Professional funeral directors will resent the competition, and be less cooperative when we really need them. WRONG. In my experience, professional funeral directors encourage the forma­tion of chevra kadishas. They realize that an educated com­munity knows not to take the services of professionals for granted, and becomes even more sensitive to what the profes­sionals are doing as they come to share the problems.

Ten Steps to Start a New Chevra Kadisha

1. Ask your rabbi to publicize the need for its creation and to motivate potential volunteers. He can use the pulpit, e-newsletters and the synagogue bulletin for creating interest.

2. Have the rabbi call and organize an initial meeting of potential volunteers. Specific individuals should be "targeted" on the basis of their potential suitability and invited personally. A good attendance must be assured at the first meeting.

3. Invite the leader of a working chevra kadisha from another city to address the meeting. Your rabbi will be able to research the available resources. Audiovisual materials are available, and should be used. Easily readable books on the subject, such as A Plain Pine Box, by Arnold M. Goodman (Ktav Publishers), should be made available.

4. At the very first meeting, elect your officers. At least three responsible, devoted, and motivated people (best primed in advance of the meeting) should be elected--a president, the head of the women's division, and the head of the men's divi­sion of the chevra [since women will attend to the bodies of women and girls, and men to the bodies of men and boys, they work in separate teams].

5. A date should be set at the initial meeting for a study seminar, led either by your rabbi or by an experienced worker from another community. [Chapter Seven of the author's book can be used as the source material for this seminar.]

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Rabbi Abner Weiss has served as a congregational rabbi in Beverly Hills, California, and London, and is a noted writer, lecturer, and halakhic authority. He has published a number of articles on Jewish bioethics.