Respectful treatment of the recently deceased and a prompt burial is one of the greatest mitzvahs, or commandments, of the Jewish faith. The corpse is carefully handled to preserve the integrity of the body, and burial must take place as soon as possible. “The in-between state is most difficult for the soul, as it has no body with which to relate to our world, and neither is it free of its tenuous bonds to our world to see things from the purely spiritual perspective,” explains Chabad.org. By returning the physical body to the earth as soon as possible, the soul is more easily able to return to the Source from which it is drawn.
The Torah forbids leaving a corpse unburied overnight; it’s thought to be a sign of great disrespect and a humiliation to the deceased. The Jewish Burial Society notes that in Jerusalem, same-day burials are strictly enforced, but in western countries some special allowances are made for burial delay including:
- The need to wait for the delivery of shrouds or a proper casket
- Waiting for the arrival of the eulogizing rabbi
- Allowing close relatives time to travel to town
- Postponement until Sabbath has passed, as burials must not take place on Sabbath
- Government regulations requiring a postmortem examination, completion of documentation, etc.
The Preparation and Purification of the Body
The ceremonial cleansing and grooming of the body is called the Taharah. This ritual, in which water is poured over the body, is often carried out by a group of men and women in the community who act as a “Holy Society” called the Chevra Kadisha. These dedicated overseers cleanse and purify the body in preparation for the next phase of its existence and dress it in a white linen shroud or simple white garments to signify purity and holiness.
The Funeral Procession
The Levayah ("accompaniment”) of the body to its resting place is one more way in which Jewish mourners show respect to the deceased. The Hebrew word levayah also denotes "joining" and "bonding," so the funeral procession is a deeply symbolic way to affirm that those who loved the deceased are still and forever joined together by “the fundamental Divine essence that all souls share.”
Mourners also believe that by participating in the levayah and escorting the deceased to the gravesite, the soul is comforted as it undergoes the difficult transition from one life to another. This is usually performed by walking behind the coffin to accompany it to the hearse, or at the cemetery as the coffin is carried from the hearse to the gravesite.
A Return to Earth From Which it Came
Jewish law requires that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth. For this reason, cremation, autopsies and embalming are forbidden. The natural process of decomposition must occur so that the body can reunite with the soil from which it was formed. This also allows the soul to return to its Source more quickly. Open-casket funerals or any display of the corpse is forbidden and seen as a violation of the deceased’s dignity and privacy.
According to Chabad.org, Jewish tradition dictates that, if possible, only fellow Jews should handle the body of a deceased Jew, carry the casket, and lower it into the earth. The eulogy (Hesped) focuses on the best traits of the deceased and contains examples of the good that he or she did in life. At the burial’s conclusion, the top of the coffin is often completely covered with earth thrown by the hands of Jews in attendance.