Preparing the Body and Making the Funeral Arrangements:
The Jewish Way--Interment in the Earth. Jewish law is unequivocal in its insistence that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth, in a way that allows for the natural process of its decomposition and re-integration with its primordial source--the soil of which it was formed. It also insists that in the interim between death and interment, the integrity and dignity of the body be respected and preserved and to allow the burial to occur 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. The body's "returning to the earth" is directly commensurate with the soul's ability to return to the supernal Source from which it is drawn.
"Earth you are, and to earth you will return," were Gd's words to Adam, the first human being (Genesis 3:19).
In the words of King Solomon, "And the earth returns to the land as it was, and the spirit returns to Gd, who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Indeed, these two "returns" are coupled. The earth is the source of physical life because Gd's essence resides within it in a deeply hidden but profoundly real way. The natural decomposition of the body into the earth allows the expeditious return of the soul to its source. Interment in the earth is also integral to the process of the techiat ha-meitim, the future resurrection of the dead. As the first human being was initially formed from the earth, so, too, when the dead are brought back to life in the World to Come, their bodies will be re-formed from the earth in which they have been interred.
The Chevra Kadisha. Every Jewish community has a Chevra Kadishah--lit., "Holy Society"--of dedicated men and women who are committed to ensuring that every Jew who passes on is accorded a proper Jewish burial. The preparation and interment of the body should be entrusted to the local Chevra Kadishah. They will conduct the Taharah and dress the deceased in the tachrichim. The Taharah is a ritual cleansing process in which the body is cleaned and groomed, and water is ritually poured over it. In life, water is the source of all our nourishment; spiritually, too, water also has this unique property. At various stages in our lifetime (e.g., before marriage, after giving birth), we immerse in a mikveh to achieve ritual purity; so, too, is the body ritually purified in preparation for this next phase of its existence. With the taharah we acknowledge with dignity the life that resonated within this body and still leaves its trace on it --forever. After the purification, the deceased is dressed in special white clothes (called tachrichim), signifying purity and holiness.
Jewish Burial. A Jew should be buried only among fellow Jews, in a Jewish cemetery. Jewish tradition regards it as a matter of great importance that only fellow Jews should handle the body of a deceased Jew, carry (or wheel) the casket, place the casket in the earth and fill in the grave. Every possible effort should be made that this indeed be the case.
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