How To Form A New Chevra Kadisha

Rebutting objections to forming or joining a burial society--and practical steps on how to do so.

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Reprinted with permission from Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Perspective (Ktav).The author makes a few assumptions about Jewish communities from his perspective as an Orthodox rabbi (e.g. that a rabbi will be male), but his heartfelt and practical advice is applicable to Jews across the spectrum.

No Reasons Not To

Most congregations do not have a chevra kadisha of their own, thus missing out on all the advantages its existence provides. I have heard many reasons given for

not having a chevra, and I think that all of them are quite groundless. Let me give you some examples:

- "Why should I do this work? What's in it for a young person? Death is easier for old people to handle." WRONG. Everybody is vulnerable to death's intrusion, young and old alike. And every­body feels enriched by the importance of this loving and holy work. Why should such feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction be withheld from the young?

- Modern, educated, Western people are squeamish and uncom­fortable around the dead. WRONG. This is only a prejudice. They merely think that they will be unable to get used to per­forming this task. After one or two sessions, the initial discomfort and squeamishness will almost always disappear.

- There is no room in a chevra kadisha for a person who genuinely will never be able to do hands-on work with the dead. WRONG. Members of a chevra kadisha have many tasks. Some will merely sit with a gentile driver of the hearse. Some will be in the same room as the deceased, without direct contact, merely "watch­ing." Some, like kohanim [those descended from the ancient priests, who traditionally are forbidden to have contact with corpses except for immediate family members], will have no contact with the dead whatsoever. But they can phone other volunteers, arrange rides to the cemetery, organize the minyan in the house of mourning, prepare meals for the bereaved, and help the mourners in all kinds of ways. Everybody can play a useful role as a member of the chevra kadisha.

- Hands-on work with the dead requires pious volunteers who are strictly observant. WRONG. This is the ideal situation. But if strictly observant volunteers are not available, great merit accrues to all Jewish volunteers.

- It is better to leave the work to professionals. Ignorant amateurs are bound to make unforgivable mistakes. WRONG. After a while, the work will come to be quite routine. There are very few unforeseen circumstances. Even if they do arise, you can always call a knowledgeable rabbi. And anyway, who says that even pro­fessionals never make mistakes? We all do, and that is why even the most skilled and experienced chevra kadishas ask the deceased for forgiveness in a standard formula after each pre­paration for burial.

- Chevra kadisha work is a tradition handed down the generations, through family connections. Outsiders need not apply. WRONG. There is no mystery or secret lore surrounding the work. The tasks are relatively simple, and can be learned by anybody.

- The training is exacting and exceedingly time-consuming. WRONG. Only one or two orientation sessions and a single demonstration are required. You will be given a printed summary of procedures. You will then "learn on the job."

- The work itself is time-consuming. WRONG. The preparation of the deceased person for burial takes no more than an hour--­much less, as the number of workers increases.

- "I can't take time off from work to do the necessary tasks." WRONG. You do not have to. The preparation can be done at night after work, or early in the morning before work.

- Professional funeral directors will resent the competition, and be less cooperative when we really need them. WRONG. In my experience, professional funeral directors encourage the forma­tion of chevra kadishas. They realize that an educated com­munity knows not to take the services of professionals for granted, and becomes even more sensitive to what the profes­sionals are doing as they come to share the problems.

Ten Steps to Start a New Chevra Kadisha

1. Ask your rabbi to publicize the need for its creation and to motivate potential volunteers. He can use the pulpit, e-newsletters and the synagogue bulletin for creating interest.

2. Have the rabbi call and organize an initial meeting of potential volunteers. Specific individuals should be "targeted" on the basis of their potential suitability and invited personally. A good attendance must be assured at the first meeting.

3. Invite the leader of a working chevra kadisha from another city to address the meeting. Your rabbi will be able to research the available resources. Audiovisual materials are available, and should be used. Easily readable books on the subject, such as A Plain Pine Box, by Arnold M. Goodman (Ktav Publishers), should be made available.

4. At the very first meeting, elect your officers. At least three responsible, devoted, and motivated people (best primed in advance of the meeting) should be elected--a president, the head of the women's division, and the head of the men's divi­sion of the chevra [since women will attend to the bodies of women and girls, and men to the bodies of men and boys, they work in separate teams].

5. A date should be set at the initial meeting for a study seminar, led either by your rabbi or by an experienced worker from another community. [Chapter Seven of the author's book can be used as the source material for this seminar.]

6. At this second meeting, a date for a third--a hands-on demon­stration on a mannequin (a hospital often has such models available)--should be set.

7. If the professional funeral director in your town has been pro­viding halakhically-approved preparations [that is, those consonant with Jewish law], arrange for the leaders of the newly formed chevra to be called out two or three times to participate and to "learn on the job." If not, arrange for at least two men and two women members of your chevra-­in-formation to spend a day or two in a city where a good chevra kadisha exists. The congregation collectively, or a few sponsors, should cover the travel costs.

8. These four individuals will then become the teachers of some of the other volunteers at the local funeral home.

9. The chevra kadisha should now formulate its rules, regulations, and standards, specifying the type of caskets, shrouds, and so forth, which will be used. These rules, regulations, and stan­dards should be devised in cooperation with your rabbi and presented to him for subsequent dissemination to the congre­gation. The chevra should purchase the necessary equipment.

10. The rabbi will now announce the availability of the chevra kadisha services to the congregation in a sermon, in the syna­gogue bulletin, and in an interview with the local news media. This information should include the phone numbers of the heads of the chevra kadisha, and should urge the community to call upon the chevra whenever death intrudes into the life of their family.

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Rabbi Abner Weiss has served as a congregational rabbi in Beverly Hills, California, and London, and is a noted writer, lecturer, and halakhic authority. He has published a number of articles on Jewish bioethics.