Burial Society
Sunday, March 8, 1998 Weekend All Things Considered

Jon Kalish reports on Jewish burial societies known as Chevra Kadisha which perform ritual purification for observant Jews who have died. These rites have their roots in Biblical times and are performed by paid individuals or voluntary communal groups.

Learn more about Jon Kalish at his Web site.

You can read the transcript:

JACKI LYDEN, HOST: This past Thursday marked the seven day of Adar in the Jewish calendar, the day on which the prophet Moses was born.

According to the Old Testament, Moses led his people out of slavery to Egypt. While doing this, he helped fulfill a promise God had made to Joseph that he could be buried in the promised land. Moses carried Joseph's bones out of Egypt and into the desert.

For that, Moses is an inspiration to Jews today, who are members of burial societies known as Chevra Kadisha. These societies prepare the deceased for internment by performing a ritual purification known as the Taharah.

Jon Kalish has this report.

JON KALISH, REPORTER: Early on a Friday morning, four members of the Chevra Kadisha of Queens gather in the basement of a Jewish funeral home and begin filling large buckets with warm water.

SOUNDBITE OF BUCKETS BEING FILLED

The room is sparsely furnished. Around the walls are sinks and cabinets. In the middle of the white-tiled there is a large mikvah (ph), or ritual bath. On a stainless-steel table lies a tall, elderly man.

SOUNDBITE OF MEN PRAYING IN HEBREW

Before starting the Taharah, the four men ask the deceased for his forgiveness.

RABBI ELHONIN ZONE (PH), DIRECTOR OF THE QUEENS' CHEVRA KADISHA: Obviously, the person's going to be undressed in our presence. That's, you know, an uncomfortable position, and so we ask them to forgive us for any indignity.

KALISH: Rabbi Elhonin Zone is the director of the Queens' Chevra Kadisha.

ZONE: We also say a prayer in Hebrew asking God to have compassion and to forgive this person for any sins they may have committed during their lifetime.

KALISH: The Chevra Kadisha of Queens performs about 2,500 Taharahs a year -- an average of seven a day. There are some 90 men and women in the group who perform Taharahs for members of their own sex.

SOUNDBITE OF MEN DRESSING

This morning, the men put on latex gloves and rubber boots before beginning. The only words that will be uttered during the ritual are prayers or directions.

SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER

There is a specific order to the washing. The head is first. The right side is washed before the left side, the front before the back. One of the men takes a large wooden toothpick and cleans toenails and fingernails. Articles of clothing or bedding stained with the blood of the deceased are collected and will be buried with the body.

All members in the Chevra Kadisha are Sabbath observers. Because the Orthodox community in New York is so large, the members here are paid, though in most places the work is a voluntary, communal responsibility.

Of all the Mizvahs (ph), or commandments a Jew can perform, the act of doing a Taharah is considered one of the most important. Lee Acone (ph), of the Jewish Renaissance Center in Manhattan, says that's because there are no thank you's involved.

LEE ACONE, JEWISH RENAISSANCE CENTER: It's called Haisachilimit (ph) meaning a true act of kindness. Because in any act of kindness that we do to another human being, it might be that even if don't know about it or don't feel it, we have also the motive that one day they might give us back. But obviously this does not apply to a dead person, so it's considered kindness that is really done with purity.

SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER

KALISH: After the washing is done, the body is transferred to a platform consisting of a wood frame and rope webbing. It is hoisted up above the stainless steel table with the aid of a motorized pulley, swung around and then lowered into the bath.

SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC MOTOR

Jews believe that total immersion in water purifies them. As the entire body of the deceased is immersed, a prayer is recited. Then, the head is raised and lowered into the water three times. Three times, the members of the Chevra Kadisha declare he is pure.

SOUNDBITE OF MEN SPEAKING IN HEBREW

The deceased is then raised from the bath.

When you're doing it, what are you thinking?

BENJAMIN KESSLER (PH), RABBINICAL STUDENT: I'm thinking about how it's the last kubud (ph), the last honor you can give a person on that day when their maker, they meet Hashem (ph) they'll meet him in the purest and cleanest form.

KALISH: Benjamin Kessler is a 27-year-old Rabbinical student, who spends three days a week performing Taharahs.

KESSLER: It's a hard thing for some people to do, and at first it was very difficult. And I've had some hard cases, I had a gunshot wound. Somebody was shot in the head.

KALISH: That was tough?

KESSLER: Yeah.

KALISH: According to Rabbi Zone, the Queen's Chevra Kadisha has had to deal with decomposed bodies, people who died during surgery, fetuses, victims of AIDS, and what he calls 20th century situations. When called upon to perform a Taharah for a transsexual, the group struggled over whether men or women should work on the body.

ZONE: Unfortunately, this is one area that really, there is very little written about. It's something that's kind of transmitted from person to person. It's kind of evolved. OK, I was taught by watching others do it.

But over the last 25 years, I have seen so many different situations that have raised so many different questions, that I've had to go back and discuss that with people who have had experience. So that almost everything that I've learned has really been on the job.

KALISH: Jews believe one should be clean and pure when judged by God. Rabbi Zone and his three assistants dry and dress the deceased, placing white linen garments over the head, torso, legs, and feet. The body is then lifted into the coffin, a simple pine box with no nails.

Because it is preferable to be buried in the Holy Land, small packets of dirt from Israel are opened and earth is sprinkled on the eyes, heart and genitals, the organs that are viewed as the source of all sin.

A Sabbath observant Jew, known as a Shomer (ph), sits next to the casket until the funeral. Lee Acone says that's so the body isn't desecrated and also so the soul of the deceased doesn't feel alone.

ACONE: The terms that will be used is that the soul is hovering on top of, but obviously that -- it's not necessarily a physical expression to a reality, but it's a spiritual attachment that still exists between the body and the soul. It's considered a difficult time for the dead person, the first few hours after death. It's facing a new reality, really, so that's the times that we -- because of respect and trying to help the person, we'll spend the times there.

KALISH: With the body of the deceased purified and his soul kept company in the final hours before it's laid to rest, the family is commanded to mourn his passing. Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, will be recited every day for the next 11 months.

The prayer, which makes no mention of death, but instead praises God and asks for peace, is said to assist the soul's ascent to heaven.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

LYDEN: Jon Kalish's story on the Chevra Kadisha is part of our series on the end of life. For more reading on the subject, visit our website at www.npr.org.


Dateline: John Kalish, New York; Jacki Lyden, Washington, DC

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