"How are we to help those who die and those who have died?" --
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

"By writing or reading obituaries,
we can discover ways to make our time on earth more worthwhile, more productive, more meaningful to others." -- Alana Baranick, "Life on the Death Beat"

"'I always read the obituaries in The Times,' I explained to her. 'They make me bloody glad to be alive.'" -- John Mortimer, "Rumpole's Return"

Chevra Kadisha: Honoring the dead, comforting the living


The first in a series of Obit Patrol stories outlining the death practices of different cultures.

“How are we to help those who die and those who have died?” – Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, from Simcha Raphael’s “Jewish Views of the Afterlife”

Death is a fact. The afterlife is subject to debate. In the here and now, the steps to take are certain.

One of the things that spoke to me about Judaism, as a convert, was its emphasis on action, on this world rather than a world to come . . . especially the kind of provisional world to come the pleasantness of which depends on one’s obedience to a doctrine.

In Judaism, surprisingly for a religion that is stereotypically considered to be encrusted with traditions, the latitude of thought and expression on every subject is wide, by and large. This has led to thousands of years of debate, speculation, elucidation, and evolution, and millions of pages of texts, commentaries, rebuttals, outcries, and reconciliations.

However, the rituals and customs that infuse daily Jewish life, and death, are detailed and comprehensive. A key part of this tradition is the Chevra Kadisha, literally “holy society” – a group of volunteers dedicated to burying the Jewish dead. These unpaid and anonymous members work together to care for the deceased in accordance with Jewish law.

In Boulder, Colorado, my home, the Chevra Kadisha was established in 1996. It currently consists of a roster of more than 100 volunteers, about a fifth of who are consistently active. They serve all Jews of any denomination, even those without any affiliation or professed level of involvement with a particular congregation. Currently, Chevra Kadisha maintains close contacts with four of Boulder’s Jewish congregations – Har Hashem (Reform), Bonai Shalom (Conservative), Nevei Kodesh and Pardes Levavot (Renewal) – Orthodox practitioners in Boulder currently do not take advantage of Chevra Kadisha.

Judaism emphasizes the equality to be found in death, the imperative for interment as soon as conveniently possible, watching over and preparing the body for burial, and the concept of accompanying and guiding the soul after its separation from the body. Caring for the dead is referred to as hesed shel emet – an eternal act of kindness, as it cannot be repaid.

When death occurs, either a rabbi or a funeral director will contact the Chevra Kadisha, and the call goes out for volunteers. The body is thought of as nireh v’eyno ro’eh, one who can be seen but cannot see, a figure of the most extreme vulnerability, even though the soul is no longer present. For the dying who request it, members of the Chevra Kadisha assemble at the place of death or at the funeral home. Embalming is not normally practiced, and cremation is discouraged. The body is attended at all times, day and night, until burial. (I suspect some of this impetus comes from the persecutions and desecrations experienced by the Jewish people at the hands of their oppressors during the 2,000 years of Diaspora.) The shomrim, or watchers, sit with the body and recite psalms and traditional prayers for the departed.

Shortly before the funeral, the body is undressed (same-sex volunteers care for each corpse), and the ritual of tahara begins. The body is carefully and respectfully washed, then submitted to a dousing of a prescribed nine kavin (24 quarts) of water, then dried and dressed in plain, white muslin tachrimim (shrouds), which are identical for all the deceased. The body is placed in a simple, unadorned coffin and is then transported to the cemetery. There is no viewing, “visitation,” nor open casket at a Jewish funeral, as it is seen as being disrespectful of the dead.

Evie Cohen, Chevra Kadisha’s point person, emphasizes that training is simple and experiential. “The biggest requirement is – good intentions,” she says. Volunteers may choose their level of involvement. Some may wish only to serve as shomrim, while others may go on to learn the difficult and emotionally wrenching task of preparing the body. “Every effort is made to recall the person-ness of the body and to avoid treating merely as an object,” writes Anita Diamant in her guide Saying Kaddish. There is even a place in the liturgy after tahara is completed when the body is apologized to for any inadvertent mishandling.

This outlines the practical steps taken in the wake of a Jewish death. However, these concrete actions parallel and bolster the emotional and psychic events taking place in the minds and hearts of the mourners, and, some say, in the soul of the departed as well.

The soul’s journey

The period between death and burial is known, for the survivors, as aninut, and during that time all mourners are referred to as onen. Maurice Lamm, in his The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, describes an onen as “a person in deep distress, a person yanked out of normal life and abruptly catapulted into the midst of inexpressible grief.” Before the end of the funeral, the focus is on kevod ha-met – honoring the dead. After the funeral, the task turns to nichum avelim – comforting the bereaved.

A prescribed set of mourning periods, gradually decreasing in intensity, marks the passage of time for the mourner for a year after a loved one’s death (11 months for a parent – it is thought that the soul needs a year to purify itself before moving on to olam ha-ba, the world to come, and no one wants to imply that his or her parent needs the full year to get his or her soul straight, as it were). From a week of home isolation and visitation, sitting shiva, to a month-long state known as shloshim, through a year of saying the traditional prayer for the dead, Kaddish – these codified practices give grief and mourning a framework within with to play themselves out.

It’s instructive to note that the Kaddish is a prayer of praise that doesn’t even reference death or loss. Instead, it is a prayer that affirms God’s wisdom. As Lamm observes:

“Beneath the surface, the Kaddish declaration expresses a thought basic to an understanding of the Jewish attitude toward life: the acceptance of seemingly undeserved pain and unreasonable tragedy in lie as being the jut – even if paradoxical – act of an all-wise God. . . . It is only by virtue of this acceptance of death as the just and inexorable terminus of life that life can be lived to its fullest. It is only through the difficult, but necessary, acknowledgement that only the Creator of the universe understands the design of His creation, that we avoid becoming disabled by the dogged questioning of imponderables that can wear out our very existence.”

Meanwhile, what about the dead person? What does Judaism say about the afterlife? Well, Simcha Paull Raphael’s exhaustively researched “Jewish Views of the Afterlife” runs to 452 pages, which should give you some sense of the spectrum of opinion on the matter. Models of the afterlife stretch in Jewish thought from simple cessation to an elaborate return of the Messiah, bodily resurrection for all worthies, and the like.

A recent lecture by Raphael given to Boulder’s Chevra Kadisha is fortunately preserved for study, and provides valuable insights (see link below). The scholar, to his credit, is very clear about the lack of consensus regarding the post-mortem universe, and that a belief or lack of belief does not hinder the psychologically healing components of Jewish mourning rituals. As a very wise rabbi once said to me, “Hey, what if none of this is true? It WORKS!”

At what I conceive to be the best possibility, that the living can ease the passage of the dead, and that the living and the dead share constructive connections, Chevra Kadisha work can do much more than simply dispose of a body efficiently. Raphael refers to his Chevra Kadisha listeners as “soul guides,” and outlines ideas his research uncovered about the soul after death – the reassurances and respect given to the body, calming the loosened soul, the seven days of shiva corresponding to the soul wandering between its earthly home and its grave, the Kaddish as a therapeutic mindfulness that reconciles the living and the dead, restoring their relationship and serving as a kind of tikkun, healing of the world.

This is not to say that Raphael endorses the idea that Chevra Kadisha is to be thought of as some kind of personal therapy. Raphael recommends that volunteers “cultivate receptivity,” “walking the soul on its journey.” This kind of selfless companionability is the antithesis of self-regarding indulgence. However, I am sure that such practice could not but help us, as Raphael says, “live our lives with a quality of integrity and openheartedness.”

In a time when a groundswell of interest in death and dying has prompted us to realize our distance from it, Chevra Kadisha demonstrates how one culture has maintained a significant, meaningful, easeful process for dealing with human death.

Boulder’s Chevra Kadisha welcomes new volunteers. For more information:

Boulder Chevra Kadisha


Judaism 101: Life, Death, and Mourning

Jewish Practice: Death & Mourning

Kavod v’Nichum: Jewish Funerals Burial, and Mourning

“Afterlife and the Renewal of Jewish Death Rituals”
Reb Simcha Paull Raphael, lecturer
Recorded at Nevei Kodesh, Boulder
March 9, 2014

Further Reading:

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning
Maurice Lamm
Jonathan David Publishers
New York

Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead and Mourn as a Jew
Anita Diamant
Schocken Books
New York

Jewish Views of the Afterlife
Simcha Paull Raphael
Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.
Northvale, NJ

The December Project: an extraordinary Rabbi and a skeptical seeker confront life’s greatest mystery
Sara Davidson
New York

Despite my determination to get through all the literature on this subject, I have just uncovered another 60 or so tomes to be added to the pile. The scholarship continues, and I run behind it, panting, arms outstretched!

Jimmy Heung

Film producer and director -- via the South China Morning Post.

Mimi Prentice

Dancer and actress -- via legacy.com.

Seaborn Jones

Poet -- via legacy.com.

Andrew Bucci

Artist -- via the Charlotte Observer.