Judaism has its fair share of rites, rituals, laws, and traditions — holiday customs, kosher laws, Shabbat laws, and life-cycle events and rituals.
At the beginning of life there are baby namings and brises; b’nei mitzva services and celebrations come not too many years later, and before you know it, the huppa — the marriage canopy.
And there are meaningful and beautiful traditions to mark the end of life as well, but, sad to say, these are unknown to most Jews.
A millennium ago, Rabbi Gamliel noticed that when some people die, their families are able to provide extravagant funerals with lavish displays of flowers — but that when other people die, their families have barely enough funds to supply a plain pine box.
Based on the concept that all Jews are equal — particularly in death — and that all human beings are of equal worth (until they prove otherwise) before God, Rabbi Gamliel reasoned that our end-of-life rituals should reflect these values and that we should refrain from displaying inequality by having expensive funeral flowers, costly coffins, and regal burial clothes.
Simplicity, equality, and modesty are the main concerns of a Jewish funeral. Simplicity about the burial rites emphasizes that in death, we are all equal and take nothing with us (there are no pockets in the shrouds). A white shroud is called for, styled minimally, with no outward signs to suggest the deceased had more or less money than anyone else.
A Jewish funeral should not be costly. Except in the case of an extreme situation, by law the funeral home is not required to perform any services at all. Most often, upon notice, the funeral home will provide “limo service” — a hearse to retrieve the body for transport to the funeral home. If the funeral is to be held in a few days, refrigeration eliminates the need for embalming. Following such guidelines results in funeral costs being kept down.
According to Jewish custom, the group of people who will care for the body — washing it, dressing it in shrouds, and placing it in the coffin — is called the hevra kadisha, the sacred burial society. Whereas the funeral home is responsible for merely transporting the body, the burial society is responsible for its care. Most societies do not charge for their services (though they will accept donations to help offset the costs of supplies).
A major consideration is “tzni’ut” — modesty. While the men’s group — and men are always responsible for men’s bodies, women for women’s — needs to be conscious of modesty for the deceased in their care, the women are especially scrupulous regarding this value.
Since Judaism does not deny death, we do not attempt to beautify the deceased — no make-up, no fancy clothes, no adornments. The eyes and mouth are closed — if possible. And if not? Then the mouth and eyes remain open. In death the deceased is perfect as is, and there is no reason to glue the eyes shut or sew the mouth closed as in other traditions; that is foreign to the Jewish way of treating our dead with respect.
There is another little-known role that Judaism provides for — the shomer, or guardian. In the days of Rabbi Gamliel, it was not unusual for robbers to steal clothing or items of value from the body or for rodents to disturb it. It was the shomer’s role to assure the “safety” of the body, and so we are bound by tradition to provide shomrim for our departed.
Members of the hevra kadisha take great pride in performing the Jewish tradition of tahara, the washing and purifying of a body — considered one of the greatest of all mitzvot — and conducting themselves with respect and reverence for the deceased. We are always in awe of the responsibility we have as the last people to care for this particular individual. With that responsibility comes the honor of preparing the body for the final resting place, by placing it in the coffin.
Judaism calls for our dead to be treated with the utmost respect, with concern for the sanctity of the body, and with a deep sense of honor to be caring for the deceased.
What a beautiful ending to what we pray was a beautiful life.