I recently joined my community’s chevrah kaddisha, the “holy society” that is responsible for preparing Jewish bodies for burial according to Jewish law. Two things have stood out to me more than any other since I started doing this work. One, that Judaism has a tremendously deep respect for a dead body, and two, it is difficult if not impossible to see a dead body and not believe in the soul.
The transformation of a cold cadaver under a sheet into an honored Jewish man is truly in itself almost supernatural. It is not easy to explain the transformation but what begins as a cold cadaver ends as the respected and almost revered former vessel of the soul…clean, groomed, dressed and resting comfortably on a pillow of straw. It is hard to articulate but the taharah process is a tangible transformation of a body in preparation for the world to come. This is not through embalming or makeup or any other false means…simply through tremendous gentle care and respect. As we lay the body in the plain pine casket it is as if the body is clearly waiting for the next world. Simple shrouds cover him, gently sprinkled soil from Israel surrounds him, small clay shards cover his eyes and mouth. It is nothing extravagant, and all families who request our services receive the same treatment whether they were poor immigrants or esteemed professionals. But the transformation is truly other worldly.
The second thing that clearly manifests itself is that seeing a dead body in its initial state right after death makes it very clear to me that the souls exists. Everything is still present…eyes, ears, mouth…and yet no sound emanates from this mouth, the eyes have no movement, the body is still. And only a few hours ago this was a speaking thinking animated living person. To see the transformation you realize very clearly that something has left the vessel of the body, that something being the soul. Now I am not so bold as to know exactly where this soul goes. Our Rabbis have ruminated on this for millennia. But it is clear to me now that this soul has departed the body and gone “somewhere.”
It is my honor to provide this service for Jewish men in my community and it has had the surprising (to me) effect of strengthening my faith and belief in the world to come.