How to Prepare the Body for a Jewish Funeral
When preparing a body for burial, Jewish tradition holds that the body must be carefully washed, dressed in a plain white shroud (it’s the same for both men and women), and blessed with special prayers in a process called taharah (“purification”).
In many ways, this is like the dressing of the high priests in the biblical Temple days, as they prepared to enter the Holy of Holies. Perhaps taharah is meant to remind people that the process of death isn’t just an exit from this world, but also an entrance into a higher, holier world.
One of the greatest mitzvot (commandments) is to do an act of charity for the dead, because they can never repay you. And performing taharah is certainly a great act of charity.
In the 16th century, the idea of the chevra kadisha (theburial society, though literally the “holy society”) first appeared in Prague. Today, every community with enough Jews has a chevra kadisha made up of volunteers who are trained in the proper rites to prepare bodies for burial.
Men work on men, women work on women; they wash the body in a reverent silence, speaking only when necessary. Always respecting the dead, they uncover a small part of the body at a time to clean it, and they walk around the body rather than reaching across it.
Finally, the chevra kadisha places the corpse in a casket, sometimes wrapped in a tallit (prayer shawl) with its tzitzit (“fringes”) cut off to signify that the tallit can no longer be used for prayer, and sometimes with a pillow of straw and some dirt from Israel poured over the eyes and heart.
It has long been the Jewish tradition for the casket to be as simple as possible — preferably just a pine box with handles. In fact, outside of America, many Jews are buried without a casket at all. If you want to cut through the salesperson’s banter, just ask for the least expensive kosher casket.