Death is one of the unquestionable facts of life. Yet, most people would admit being uncomfortable with the idea of being in a room with a dead body. Seeing a corpse is a “too close” reminder of our own mortality and that we mere mortals do not have control over our own fate. Ask any therapist, and they will agree that the death of a loved one arouses a wide range of negative emotions–from anger to depression, and everything in-between.

However, as uncomfortable as people may be with death and dead bodies, escorting a body to its final resting place is considered a very important mitzvah. And those who volunteer for the chevra kadisha, the holy society that prepares the dead for burial, are performing what is known as chesed shel emet, an act of ultimate kindness.

The chevra kadisha‘s primary responsibility is the tahara (purification), the preparation of the body for burial. This solemn act is performed with the utmost care for both the body and the soul, which, according to tradition, remains near the body until burial. During the cleansing process, the body is never fully exposed, only that area that is being washed. The tahara is done in silence, so that idle chatter not take away from the dignity of the deceased. Indeed, nothing is even passed over the deceased, lest one forget that here lies a vessel that once held a holy soul, not just a body.

Additionally, before and after the tahara, members of the chevra kadisha recite a prayer asking the departed to forgive any inadvertent offense or disrespect.

The tahara concludes with the dressing of the body in a clean white shroud. The body is now ready for burial, which is also often conducted by the chevra kadisha.

Jewish Treats honors the memory of Stephen Tyrone Johns, who sacrificed his life to protect people of all faiths and races while guarding the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. May his memory serve as a reminder of how malicious and destructive hate can be.

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