Why I Joined Our Hevra Kaddisha
How one woman, in the middle of her own year of mourning, joined this "holy society" of those who prepare the dead for burial--and what it has meant to her.
Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma magazine.
I remember from my childhood days in a small German Jewish community that the hevra kaddisha--literally, "holy fellowship"; in fact, the Jewish burial society--was looked upon with great respect and admiration. Even as children we were conscious of the sense of dedication that was needed to overcome inconvenience and squeamishness to carry out the tasks of the hevra at short notice and at any hour. It was considered a great honor to be asked to join this group. Their work was strictly l'shem mitzvah [for the sake of the mitzvah--commandment--itself], that is to say, without any remuneration.
I was asked to join the Riverdale Chevra Kadisha [which transliterates the term hevra kaddisha differently in its name] the year that my father died. I had mixed feelings about joining, probably because of our fresh personal loss and the three years of sickness that preceded it. (These had been hard years. Following our move into a new community that was rapidly growing and changing, my father fractured his hip. The ensuing years were those of a steady decline in health, which at the age of 89, ended in death).
Then I considered several factors. Traditionally there is a men's hevra that takes care of men that have passed away. There was a men's hevra in our congregation. A ladies' group was just starting to form. While the men were already actively involved, the ladies were all novices. The exception was one who was several years our senior and had been involved in hevra work in Chicago before she came to Riverdale. She was the moving force, and became the chairperson of the women's hevra.
I Didn't Want to Become Hardened to the Dead
Up until then, in the absence of a ladies' hevra of shul members, our congregation had been forced to call upon a group of women from Williamsburg who do this kind of work regularly for a livelihood. These were committed women, but they were hardened by the daily exposure. We all felt that the first law of the hevra is to treat the dead with the same tenderness as though they were alive.
This was not so with the Williamsburg professionals. Even though at the end of the Taharah, the ritual purification of the body, they begged mekhilah (forgiveness) from the deceased for any indignities unwittingly committed [as is traditional], we felt that this was not good enough. Several months later, after our own hevra had been formed, I had an occasion to work with this Williamsburg group. It was on erev Pesach (Passover eve) and most of our regular members were away. The chairman of the men's group called me and asked me to join the Williamsburg group so that at least one member of our hevra would be represented. The experience confirmed everything that had been told to us previously. While I respected them and recognized their dedication, I would not want to be exposed to this "professional" attitude often for fear that it would rub off on me.