A Return to Ritual Bathing and Shrouding of Our Dead

A painting of the Jewish burial society in Prague completed in the 1770s.

A painting of the Jewish burial society in Prague completed in the 1770s.

Though Moses was a fulsome 120 years of age, he is said to have argued with God about death. He wasn't quite ready. But God said, in essence, "Look, I got this." And then God promised to care for Moses's body Himself. God managed all the bathing and shrouding on His own, as only the world's most loving, caring funeral guide or death doula would.

Today marks the day when observant Jewish people observe the anniversary of this important funeral. They repeat the story, and honor their own holy societies, the hevra kadisha teams all over the world who bathe and shroud their community's dead--anonymously, and with limitless respect and decency. This is not easy. It can involve being ready at all hours to serve as a witness or guardian shomer so that the transitioning soul will never be alone and stay protected until burial. Then it takes fortitude for the hevra kadisha workers, considered a "holy society," to prepare the body for burial. An older generation of reform Jewish people may think of these rituals as solely in the realm of Jewish orthodoxy, but with new teachers and some adaptive thinking, the wisdom of these customs is gaining broader acknowledgment and much deserved re-evaluation within progressive Jewish communities.

If you're interested in knowing more about the Jewish tahara ritual and liturgy, which in New York City is still something funeral homes offer deceased Jewish people, watch this wonderfully animated video, and know that the custom of bathing and shrouding the dead has a history too within Islam, Christianity (as Jesus was Jewish), Hinduism and Buddhism. Before caskets, people shrouded, and did well with it. Thank you, Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, for being one of my teachers and for writing so beautifully about the meaning of tahara ritual here. And thank you to the Koret Foundation for the video that follows.




Amy Cunningham