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Death Don't Have No Mercy

02/10/2011 11:30:31 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

I recently met with some members of the Chevra Kadisha of Sonoma County, the Jewish Burial Society of Sonoma County. We talked at length about the various challenges they face, especially the need to get the word out about their holy work and how we can help.

In general, Americans are death-averse; we don’t like to talk about death and we work hard to keep the messy details as far away from us as possible. But, “death don’t have no mercy;” we are all going to die, so it makes practical and Jewish sense to face this inevitability head-on. According to Jewish tradition, no one is more vulnerable than when they are dead, and great care and respect should be given to the dead. Kavod Hamet, honoring the dead, is an essential Jewish value as important as ever but lost to many today.

How does one honor the dead? There are various practices but here are the basics:
Provide Shomrim/Guardians who accompany/stay with the body from death until burial.
Honor the body: Don’t defile the body—avoid autopsies & embalming (when you can); avoid any alteration of the body after death (organ donations are an exception).
Treat the body with dignity: Don’t leave the body exposed. This includes public viewings, which, from a Jewish perspective, are an affront to the dead who, even when made up, only look like a shadow of themselves when they were alive.
Handle the body with great reverence and care: Even in death the deceased still represents a diminished but real reflection of the Divine, in as much as we are all created B’tzelem Elohim/in God’s image. This is also why a speedy burial is so important – to leave a body unburied is considered undignified and shameful.

What does the Chevra Kadisha do? They can oversee all or part of the process from death until burial. Most important of all, they handle the holy work of Taharah and Tachrichim, the ritual washing and the dressing of the body, as well as the placement of the deceased into the Aron/casket.

Why use the Chevra Kadisha? Besides the value of following Jewish Tradition, there is also the value of having members of your own community reverently care for you or your loved ones. Even under the most professional of circumstances, it is hard to imagine that mortuary employees will handle you or your loved one with as much care or respect as our own Chevra Kadisha.

Are there additional costs involved? The Chevra Kadisha is made up of a group of volunteers whose only compensation is the satisfaction of fulfilling the mitzvot of Kavod Hamet. There is often a small fee to cover their costs and the funeral home may charge for Tahara. However, cost should not be an issue in your decision to use the Chevra Kadisha. No one will be denied this sacred ritual.

Besides thinking about using the Chevra Kadisha for you or your loved ones in your time of need, please consider volunteering to help by being there for others in your community at their most vulnerable time.

If you would you like to learn about the Chevra Kadisha, call Patty or Marc Bernstein at (707) 546-6043 or visit the website of the Chevra Kadisha of Sonoma County, – which is currently a work-in-progress.

Wed, August 4 2021 26 Av 5781