The Taharah

"As he came, so shall he go," says Ecclesiastes. Just as a newborn child is immediately washed and enters this world clean and pure, so he who departs this world must be cleansed and made pure through the religious ritual called taharah (purification).

The taharah is performed by the Chevra Kadisha (the Holy Society, i.e. the Burial Society), consisting of Jews who are knowledgeable in the area of traditional duties, and can display proper respect for the deceased. In addition to the physical cleansing and preparation of the body for burial, they also recite the required prayers asking Almighty G‑d for forgiveness for any sins the deceased may have committed, and praying that the All-Merciful may guard him and grant him eternal peace. Membership in the Chevra Kadisha has always been considered a great communal honor bestowed only upon those who are truly pious. Non-Jews, under no circumstances, should perform these sacred tasks of preparing the body, for the ritual of taharah is by no means a merely hygienic performance. It is a Jewish religious act.

It is advisable that members of the immediate family absent themselves during the purification, for while their presence would constitute a symbol of respect, it is considered too painful for them to bear. The rabbi can arrange for this purification through the communal Chevra Kadisha or through the funeral director. The taharah is the age-old Jewish manner of showing respect for the dead. This is not merely "an old custom," or a "nice tradition," but is an absolute requirement of Jewish law.

It is tragic that fewer and fewer Jews appreciate the magnificence of serving on the Chevra Kadisha, let alone of using its services. In order to clarify the specific procedures of taharah that may be helpful to burial societies, there is a special chapter on the subject in the appendix.

Dressing the Body

Jewish tradition recognizes the democracy of death. It therefore demands that all Jews be buried in the same type of garment. Wealthy or poor, all are equal before G‑d, and that which determines their reward is not what they wear, but what they are. Nineteen hundred years ago, Rabbi Gamaliel instituted this practice so that the poor would not be shamed and the wealthy would not vie with each other in displaying the costliness of the burial clothes.

The clothes to be worn should be appropriate for one who is shortly to stand in judgment before G‑d Almighty, Master of the universe and Creator of man. Therefore, they should be simple, handmade, perfectly clean, and white. These shrouds symbolize purity, simplicity, and dignity. Shrouds have no pockets. They, therefore, can carry no material wealth. Not a man's possessions but his soul is of importance. The burial society or funeral director has a ready supply of such shrouds available. If time must elapse before they can be obtained, the funeral should be delayed, as they are considered very important.

Shrouds may be made of muslin, cotton or linen. The rule of thumb is that one should not go to greater expense than the cost of linen, but a less expensive cloth may be used.

The deceased should then be wrapped in his tallit-regardless of whether or not it is expensive, or how new it is. One of the fringes should be cut. One who was not observant, and unaccustomed to wearing a tallit may, if so desired, be buried in one purchased specifically for this purpose. The family of the deceased should decide the matter in this case.

The Casket

"For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19), is the guiding principle in regard to the selection of caskets. The practice in Israel and in many parts of Europe has been to bury the deceased on a bed of intertwined reeds, in no casket at all, thus, literally, fulfilling the biblical prescription of returning the body to the bosom of the earth. The casket was used in ancient times either for purposes of honor, such as for the burial of a priest, or to avoid a horrible sight, such as when burying a person who was badly burned or maimed, or to avoid a public health hazard, as in the case of one who died of a contagious disease.

In this country, however, the dead are always buried in caskets. The type of casket purchased should not be determined by cost, and one should not worry excessively about how visitors will consider it. The following are the basic criteria:

  1. The coffin must be made completely of wood. The Bible tells us that Adam and Eve hid among the trees in the garden of Eden when they heard the Divine judgment for committing the first sin. Said Rabbi Levi: "This was a sign for their descendants that, when they die and are prepared to receive their reward, they should be placed in coffins made of wood."

    Another reason for the use of a wood coffin is so that the body and shroud should not decompose too much sooner than the coffin. The body, the cloth and the wood have comparable rates of deterioration. A metal casket would retard that process. "Unto dust shalt thou return."

  2. Caskets made with metal handles and nails theoretically may be used. This satisfies both previously mentioned reasons for the use of wooden caskets. There is a long-standing custom, however, one which is subscribed to by a majority of Jews, which demands that only wooden pegs be used. In funeral chapels these wooden-pegged caskets are called "Orthodox."

  3. Casket interiors. Often, so-called "Orthodox" caskets are purchased with the interior lined, and bedded, and pillowed, preparatory to viewing the deceased-a totally objectionable procedure in truly Orthodox belief and practice. Lined interiors are not considered proper. They, like the embalming, suit-dressing and viewing which usually follow violate the basic principles of the Jewish funeral. The interior adds neither "comfort" nor dignity nor respect. It is only an artificial appendage, unless designed for "viewing," and viewing the body is surely not to be condoned religiously.

  4. Type of wood. It really makes no difference what style or quality of wooden casket has been selected. Whether it is mahogany or pine, polished or plain, is unimportant. Many insist on drilling holes at the bottom of the casket to fulfill the "unto dust" requirement. This is quite proper and should be encouraged.

  5. Earth from the Holy Land is frequently buried along with the deceased. This is a touching and meaningful custom. Those who wish to observe it should not be discouraged from doing so. The funeral director can easily arrange for it.

  6. The casket does not have to be either costly or inexpensive. The Sages did not consider the expense a barometer of honor to the dead. To some it may be preferable to contribute monies to charity in memory of the deceased, rather than purchase lavish caskets. The cost is a personal matter, and should fit the budget of the survivors. The essential requirement is that dignity should prevail.

  7. Ostentatious caskets are not in good taste. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt left explicit instructions that "`the casket be of absolute simplicity, dark wood, that the body be not embalmed, or hermetically-sealed, and that the grave be not lined with brick, cement, or stones." Likewise, while the remains of President John F. Kennedy were conveyed in a bronze coffin, before explicit arrangements could be made, his widow wisely decided that the President's spirit and life demanded a simple coffin, and he was removed from the bronze coffin and was interred in a wooden casket.


In ancient days, the Talmud informs us, fragrant flowers and spices were used at the funeral to offset the odor of the decaying body. Today, this is no longer essential and they should not be used at Jewish funerals at all. In our days, they are used primarily at Christian funerals, and are considered to be a non-Jewish ritual custom which should be discouraged. It is much better to honor the deceased by making a contribution to a synagogue or hospital, or to a medical research association for the disease which afflicted the deceased. This method of tribute is more lasting and meaningful. However, if flowers are sent to the chapel, and the sender cannot be discouraged, the following procedure is recommended:

1. If the sender does not mind, they should be kept for the house of mourning. Failing this they should be placed at graveside, but not displayed during the service.

2. If the sender is so sensitive and the relationship so delicate that he will be offended, and these recommendations will cause insult or anger, and no alternative presents itself, it is preferable to accept them graciously and display them as intended, but not in an ostentatious manner.