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Burial Society (Chevra Kadisha)

In proper English, Chevra Kadisha means “The Sacred Society;” in the vernacular, “Team Holiness.” Our mission is:

To honor the dead, by caring for them according to the dictates of our Jewish Law.

To honor the living, by caring for them according to the dictates of our humanity.

A typical chevra kadisha consists of three parts: shomrim (the people who “guard” or watch the deceased before the funeral; tahara, (the people who prepare the deceased for burial by performing ritual washing and dressing of the deceased); and bereavement or chaverim (the group that gives support to the family before and during shiva). Our Chevra Kadisha Committee now provides all three parts to families within our congregation who have experienced a death. Our committee makes an effort to provide shomrim, and if necessary, tahara, to the immediate family of our members when requested; and so far, we have been able to provide these services. We have also, when requested by Jefferson Funeral Home, provided tahara to the community.

We are fortunate to be working with Jefferson Funeral Home, the funeral home in Northern Virginia which is approved by the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington. Jefferson has a room set aside and equipped for tahara. The staff there is very knowledgeable about Jewish funeral practices and is very cooperative with any of our requests. They also have a special room for shomrim duty.

When a bereaved family requests shomrim or their loved one, the committee goes into action. Email requests are sent to the congregation, and schedules are set up with two-hour shifts (except for during the middle of the night when the shifts are three hours). People call and email the shomrim captains until all shifts are filled. Once we have made the decision to provide shomrim, we must fill all the shifts. If we miss even one shift, it is as if we were not performing this mitzvah at all.

No training is required to perform the mitzvah of shomrim. We do, however, have a set of guidelines which we email or send to each person who is performing shomrim for the first time. It is traditional to read psalms during this time, but it is not a requirement. The shomrim room at Jefferson is equipped with numerous Jewish books on mourning, as well as a book of psalms. Many members of our congregation who have performed shomrim duty report that it is a very comforting time for them. The person performing this task does not actually need to see the deceased — before tahara has been performed, the deceased is usually in an adjacent room (and often that door is closed). After tahara, the deceased is brought into the shomrim room in a closed coffin. This mitzvah is one of chesed shel emet — a true mitzvah for which the recipient cannot thank you or repay you.

Tahara means the washing of the body from head to toe by pouring water over it, and then the dressing of the body in the plain linen shroud in which it will be buried. Members of our tahara group have received training, and new members observe and participate in a tahara session before deciding if they want to be a part of this group. The performance of tahara is a very solemn but uplifting experience.