The Seattle Jewish Chapel is a nondescript building behind Bikur Cholim-Machzikay Hadath, the state’s oldest Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue, in Seward Park. Past a small waiting area is the tahara facility: a large, cool room that feels, with its plain silver gurney, disposable gowns, and stacks of boxes of burial shrouds, both medical and Jewish. This is the place where, immediately after death, Jewish bodies are brought for the final rites of washing, blessing, and dressing by a small crew of dedicated volunteers known as the chevra kadisha — literally, “the holiness society.”
“Tahara” means purification in a spiritual sense. Local chevra kadishas have performed tahara before burial for thousands of years, even though it is one area of Jewish law that does not have a clear trajectory from the Tanakh, explains the chapel’s director, Joe Greene. Slight variances occur between cultures and genders, but the basic preparation is consistent around the world: the preparers clip the nails, comb the hair, gently wash the body with soap, and rinse the body with water three times before dressing it in a white gown and sprinkling dirt from Jerusalem on the heart or the eyes. Preparers collect all loose hairs and nail clippings to place in a straw-filled pillow — they will remain with the body at burial. It’s a quiet ritual with hushed conversation regarding only logistics, prayer, and the counting of a symbolic number of knots in the funerary garments.
When an individual has indicated that they want a traditional Jewish burial, Greene is notified immediately after death. “Sometimes facilities are surprised at how quickly we arrive,” he says. The chapel arranges for “shmira,” the constant guarding of the body, a custom thought to have two purposes: to prevent adulteration of the body and to offer respect or comfort to the family. Greene says they handle around 140 burial preparations a year, and since it’s the only tahara facility in the Northwest other than Portland, volunteers occasionally have to travel up to Alaska.
The chevra kadisha leaders credit their experiences with their own spiritual development. Sasha Mail, who handles burial rites for women, was inspired to volunteer after the death of her grandmother, who refused a Jewish burial. “I understand how misunderstood [tahara and burial] are by the secular Jewish world,” Mail says. While some may consider Jewish traditions to be grounded in superstition, she counters that the structured burial rites “help us through mourning in a productive and healthy way.” Greene, too, has come to understand the intent of Jewish rituals regarding the deceased. “They don’t deny or overemphasize death,” he says. “Judaism tries to find the balance between the body and its soul.”