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An Introduction and Guide to The Handling of Jewish Dead
This guide is intended for those professionals whose work includes the handling of corpses, to provide an understanding of Jewish customs and expectations when a Jewish person dies.
Overview of Jewish Burial Customs
The human body is considered a holy vessel to the Jew, hence it must be treated with utmost respect and dignity, both during life and after death. When a Jew dies, the body is prepared for burial through a specific procedure known as the Tahara that must be performed by other Jews. The team of people who do this are called the Chevra Kadisha (“sacred fellowship” or “burial society”). This process includes washing the body physically, a spiritual purification through the pouring of water over the body, the dressing of the body in specific burial shrouds, and the placing of the body into the casket. No embalming is performed. Autopsies are allowed only when absolutely necessary. However, organ donation is allowed. It is expected that if the body is cut open for these procedures, the opening be surgically stitched closed afterwards so no fluids can pass into or out of the body. The Tahara procedure is usually performed a few hours before burial.
It is our custom to bury our dead into the ground. Cremation is not a Jewish custom. Some Jews choose cremation because they do not know this or because it is so common among non-Jews to cremate. If a Jewish family is planning cremation we suggest that you ask them to consult with a Rabbi before finalizing this choice.
Requirements Asked of the Funeral Home for Body Preparation
The Tahara is a ritual preparation of the body for burial. It includes a physical washing of the body along with spiritual rituals. We will provide much of what is needed for this process, however we need your help in the areas listed below.
- Please provide us with a preparation room that is clean, orderly, and ready for our use.
- The body should be lying on his/her back with eyes closed on a table that tilts with the table tilted just slightly toward the feet. The body should be covered with a clean sheet. All catheters in the body should be removed before our arrival.
- The table on which the body is resting should be locked into position, both the tilt and the wheels.
- The coffin should be in the room on a rolling stand. The casket should be simple wood, not metal or other material. It should have holes drilled into the bottom, and be free of fancy linings or other embellishments. The lid should be with the coffin, and checked to be sure it fits properly.
- There should be an additional table available in the room for spreading out shrouds and supplies, etc.
- Please provide a Jewish burial shroud set for the appropriate gender of the dead.
- One packet of earth from Israel is used for each Tahara, and often, another at the burial.
- Please provide waterproof surgical clothing and face shields for the Tahara team to wear (usually four to six people are needed). A supply of heavy-duty rubber or latex gloves (sizes XL, M, and S) should be on hand. (See the required personal protective equipment below.)
- There should be at least 6 clean, dry sheets available (white, rectangular, twin-size).
- There should be plenty of clean cloth towels available along with a roll of cotton batting or paper towels.
- A water source should be close at hand – a sink big enough to fill buckets in, wash hands, etc.
- The room should have a working drain in the floor or near the end of the table on which the body is resting. We will be pouring water over the deceased. This water needs to drain appropriately, and the urinal-drain gets overloaded easily, so we don’t use it. The water will be poured over the body and table and onto the floor. We can better contain the poured water to funnel it into the drain perhaps if you provide extra towels or a “dam” of some sort that will keep the water from spreading across the room.
- An appropriate container for bio-hazardous material should be available in the room, along with a large trashcan for normal trash.
- There should be another container or laundry bin for used sheets and cloth towels.
- Arrangements should be made to turn off all buzzers, phones, alarms, etc., that are in the room where the Tahara takes place.
- Once the Tahara is completed, the coffin with the body inside will need to rest in a different room from where the washing occurred. It should be a place safe for a candle to be lit, and have space for a person to sit near the coffin. Please make arrangements for family members or others to sit with the body until burial. This could easily be through the night or over a weekend.
- At the gravesite, please ensure that there is a mound of dirt near the grave, and several shovels available. Part of the burial service includes family members shoveling some dirt into the grave onto the casket.
- Jewish funerals usually do not include flowers – we ask that people give to a charity in the name of the deceased instead.
- A qualified staff member should always be in the facility when a Tahara is being performed should any problems arise. On occasion we will need your help to use the hydraulic lift to move a body from the table into the casket.
Because the Jewish tradition includes the concept of soul, the body of the deceased is not left alone from the time of death until burial. If it is not possible for a “shomer” to sit with the deceased, then it is requested that a lit candle be present near the head of the body. To show respect to the deceased, we never “view the body” – at no time will the casket be open, nor the body available for viewing. We ask that you allow members of our community 24-hour access to your facility to sit “shomer” with the body. Please provide a place for these visitors to sit while they read psalms, somewhere warm, out of the weather, with a light for reading.
Questions To Be Asked Of The Family
- What is the full Hebrew name of the deceased?
- What is the full English name of the deceased?
- What should be done with the wedding band (if any), buried with the dead or given to the family? What about any other jewelry found on the body?
- Does the family want to participate in shmirah? (Sitting with the casket, reading psalms.)
- Does the deceased have a prayer shawl (tallit)? Do the family members want him (or possibly her) buried in it?
- Any special requests?
Required Personal Protective Clothing
The following is a list of disposable personal protective equipment needed by the Tahara team members. Please have various sizes on hand.
- Full sleeve coveralls (one-piece full-body suit, elastic sleeves, zipper, attached boots): S, M, XL sizes; full sleeve aprons (for those wearing skirts) plus booties
- Hair covering surgical bonnets
- Face splash shields (such as Medline #NONFS300H full foam top elastic shield)
- Rubber gloves: S, M, XL sizes