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Chevrah Chadisha

The Vancouver Women's Chevrah Chadisha

Each person is a world. In death a world has been destroyed. Our minds, our personalities, all that we were has vanished, utterly disappeared. Only our bodies remain behind.

Judaism has a beautiful approach toward the treatment of the body after death. The Chevrah Chadisha, literally ‘Holy Society’ and often translated to ‘Burial Society’, prepares the body for burial through performing a tahara.

There is a great beauty in the final rites performed upon the dead. The idea behind them is one of the utmost respect for the dead, and the desire is to preserve the dignity of the individual.

One’s soul and its spiritual rectification is far more important following death than any honor a person could possibly get from their association with earthly possessions. This, the Jewish funeral, emphasizes the spiritual and sublime over the physical and material.

All Jews have the right to be purified before God.

Vancouver’s women’s Chevrah Chadisha has ten members, and they representative most of the synagogues in Vancouver. There are customarily five members present for a tahara, though it can take place with as few as three. We dress appropriately in knee-length skirts or longer, tops with long sleeves and closed shoes. We also wear hats or other head coverings.

The women’s taharot take place at the Schara Tzedeck cemetery in New Westminster and are usually performed early in the morning.

The task of tahara is a sacred privilege for us, to be carried out in an atmosphere of holiness. We recognize that the body is the vessel of the soul, and has been created b’tzelem elohim, in the divine image. Maintaining the dignity of the meitah, the person now deceased, is of paramount importance to us. We approach tahara, quietly, prayerfully, respectfully and tenderly. Since we wish to cause as little disturbance or distress to the meitah as possible, we leave worldly issues aside for the moment and together we enter a sanctified space of mind.

Each woman assumes a position around the deceased for the duration of the tahara, and carries out the specific duties of that position. Our desire is to make every tahara smooth, efficient and graceful with a maximum of respect and a minimum of fuss.

We follow universal health precautions by wearing gowns and latex gloves. This ensures the protection of the living as well as giving equal treatment to each meitah regardless of the cause of death. If any challenges arise during the procedure, we step away from the table and resolve them together as quietly as possible.

The stainless steel tahara table is in the centre of the room. It is slightly raised at the head to allow for drainage, and has a sink and hose at the foot end. The table supports a frame of wooden planks upon which the meitah rests. Nylon ropes and a metal ring are attached to each side of the plank, which allow the plank to be connected to an electronic lift running across the ceiling. When we enter the room we prepare all the equipment we will be using during the tahara.

Before proceeding any further, we read a prayer together, in which the meitah’s name and parents names are read out. We then remove the exterior cloth covering her and place it at the rear of the mikvah, then remove either the sheet or body bag covering her and remove any clothing and jewellery. The meitah is then immediately covered with a sheet.

We then prepare the meitah. Her fingernails and toenails are cleaned, washed and any nail polish is removed. Her face is washed taking care not to introduce water into her nose and mouth, and her hair is rinsed and left uncombed.

The participants on the left hold the sheet up to expose the right side of the body and that side is washed, using a washcloth and a stream of water from a vessel. The torso, arm, pelvis, leg and foot are washed in this manner, and then the left side is washed in the same way. Then the meitah is turned onto her left side and her right side is washed and the same procedure is followed for the right side.

The meitah is now ready for immersion in the mikvah, if it is appropriate to do so. The electronic lift is used to move the meitah onto the wooden plank to the mikvah. A long wooden paddle is placed on each corner of the plank to steady and aid in submersion. The covering sheet is removed as the plank is lowered into the water. Using gentle pressure on her shoulders and knees, the meitah is completely submerged three times. Each submersion is accompanied by the words ‘teHORA he’ – ‘she is pure’. Upon removal from the mikvah the meitah is covered with a fresh sheet and returned to the table.

If immersion in the mikvah is not appropriate, the meitah is purified in place on the table. Three participants each take a pail of tepid water, and pour the water over her body in a continuous stream, beginning at her head and moving down each side and over her feet. As the water is poured, the participants repeat ‘teHORA he’ three times. The meitah is then covered with a fresh sheet. The sheet is used to dry the meitah and the wooden planks beneath her. She is turned to the left and then to the right to complete the drying.

According to Jewish tradition the meitah’s body is dressed in plain white tachrichim (traditional shrouds). These garments are hand made from linen and are considered fitting for someone who is about to stand before God in judgement. Another reason given is that using simple shrouds ensures that those who cannot afford fancy clothing are not ‘embarrassed’ that they do not have any.

Firstly the hair is covered with a cap, which is tied under the chin. The ties are wound together four times to the count of ‘aleph, bet, gimmel, daled’ then tied in a bow. The meitah is dressed in trousers, and a tie is wrapped around each leg and twisted three times to the count of ‘aleph, bet, gimmel’. The meitah is then dressed in an undershirt and then the kittel (the top shirt) is put on her. When both garments are in place, they are tied at the neck, and the wrists are secured with narrow ties, in a similar way to that of the trousers. A sash is then put in place around the meitah and a veil is placed over her face and tied in position. Lastly the sovev, the shroud, is put in place. The meitah is now transported to the casket.

For the concluding ritual the shroud is unwrapped, the face veil is lifted and the shirts and trousers are loosened and earth from Israel is sprinkled over her eyes, the area of her heart and her groin, whilst a member repeats the phrase ‘adamat eretz Israel’ (earth from Israel). Pottery shards are placed over her eyes and inserted between her lips.

The women of the Chevrah Chadisha now surround the casket and recite two closing prayers. The lid of the casket is put in place and is covered with the black drape. A paper with the name of the meitah is pinned to the drape at the foot of the casket.