My first experience with the chevra kadisha

In an extract from her book, Sally Berkovic offers a glimpse into the hidden work of the burial society


At Bushey cemetery just north of London, in a specially designed building a short walk from the actual graves, I stood in awe as four women performed the taharah, the cleansing rites. I was there just to observe.

The meis, or dead person, was a lady in her 90s and the care with which the team of women preserved this dead woman’s dignity was breathtaking. At no point did it feel like a rushed job. She arrived foetus-like and they gently unfurled her, caressing her hands as they took off her nail polish and softly untangled her hair.

When they finished preparing her body, she was dressed in the simple white shrouds. There was a palpable sense of quiet satisfaction: a feeling that this group of women had honoured this stranger, offered her dignity and ensured she received everything she was due.

This could not be learnt from a textbook, and I was deeply moved. I felt it would give the family great comfort to know that their mother was tenderly prepared for burial; a woman reconstituted, a woman now dressed and ready to meet her Maker.

Although relatives can ask to see the body in the coffin, relatively few take up that option.

On average, the process takes 45 minutes. As an observer, I was completely passive. As I watched the women at work, I wondered about them: what inspired and motivated them to join this club, what grief do they bring to the task, and what do they do when they are not together in this room?

Truth is, several years later, I still know very little about the women. Luckily, I didn’t sign up looking to expand my social circle. Occasionally, I see one of them at a community event or at the kosher supermarket. We might nod at each other in quiet acknowledgement, but more often than not, we barely recognise each other out of context.

When we come together to perform a taharah, we hardly talk as it feels inappropriate to engage in casual banter. We all belong to an Orthodox synagogue as that is the basic criteria for being accepted into this particular chevra kadisha. While I sense that there is a spectrum of observance amongst the group, our individual differences are irrelevant for it is wonder and humility in the face of death that binds us.

As the taharah process draws to a close, I’m asked if I would like to do one small thing. I am encouraged to make one of the special knots that secures the garments in place. I nervously did the task, and considered that as my initiation into the chevra kadisha.

It felt like their way of acknowledging my presence in the room and allowed me to participate in the mitzvah which showed great generosity of spirit.

The observation is designed to give someone the option to opt out with no hard feelings and a couple of days later I received a call to check how I felt about the experience. It did not deter me at all. In fact, it convinced me that this task was my destiny.

The chevra kadisha operates every day other than Shabbat and Sunday became my regular day. On my first official Sunday, women who had been doing this for 10 to 20 years welcomed me as the newbie and encouraged me to ask any questions.

The day after, one of the women called to “check in” with me. Was I ok? Did I find it traumatic? Was it emotionally too difficult? This level of pastoral care is both reassuring but also an excellent professional protocol.

I have yet to deal with a baby or teenage suicide — I would like to think there’s a crack chevra kadisha team engaged for such particularly heart-wrenching situations. Women in their 50s have been difficult enough – knowing it could have been me and wondering why it hasn’t been me.

When I joined, I was instructed that participation in the chevra kadisha should not be discussed publicly. It was simply something that should not be talked about. I did not query this requirement and liked the idea that the chevra kadisha was not something to publicise.

It was a sobering lesson in subsuming one’s ego as participation in this rite was not about drawing attention to oneself, but rather was solely about the dead person.

I was reminded of the morning prayer that lists those things for which we earn no reward in this world, rather the reward is waiting for us in the world to come. They include honouring one’s parents, visiting the sick, welcoming guests and accompanying the dead to their grave.

Acts involving the dead are referred to as a chesed shel emet, an utterly altruistic deed, for there is no possibility of reciprocity.

For several years, I was obedient and didn’t tell anyone that I was involved in the chevra kadisha and barely mentioned it at home. However, a few years ago, I had a conversation with an American woman over Shabbat lunch that completely changed my perspective.

I don’t even remember exactly how it came up in conversation, but she just started talking about her involvement in her local chevra kadisha. I was shocked that she was so open and without telling her of my participation, I gingerly said something along the lines of “how come you’re talking about it so openly? From what I’ve heard in the UK, it’s not something you talk about and there is a very strong ethic of keeping it hidden.”

A man at the table contradicted me, “I’m involved in our men’s chevra and no one ever told me not to say anything.”

This woman was not going to be silent and yet she wasn’t showing off. She was simply sharing the facts, highlighting this mitzvah, like any other that we should strive to do. She made the very sensible point that it needs to be discussed so that people will join. It needs to be addressed because it is a beautiful rite that encapsulates life and death in one embrace.

How can a community ensure the continuation of the chevra kadisha if it is clouded in mystery?

Death Duties: The Chevra Kadisha Jewish Burial Society – What Being Around the Dead Taught Me About Life is available from at £13

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