A Chevra kadisha (Modern Hebrew: חֶבְרָה קַדִּישָׁא)[a] is an organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial. Two of the main requirements are the showing of proper respect for a corpse, and the ritual cleansing of the body and subsequent dressing for burial. It is usually referred to as a burial society in English.
Throughout Jewish history, each Jewish community throughout the world has established a Chevra Kadisha — a Holy Society — whose sole function is to ensure dignified treatment of the deceased in accordance with Jewish law, custom, and tradition. This auspicious title exists because performing a favor for someone who is dead is considered the ultimate act of kindness — as a dead person can never repay the kindness, making it devoid of ulterior motives. Its work is therefore referred to as a chesed shel emet (Hebrew: חסד של אמת, "a good deed of truth"), paraphrased from Genesis 47:29 (where Jacob asks his son Joseph, "do me a 'true' favor" and Joseph promises his father to bury him in the burial place of his ancestors).
At the heart of the society's function is the ritual of tahara, or purification. The body is first thoroughly cleansed of dirt, bodily fluids and solids, and anything else that may be on the skin, and then is ritually purified by immersion in, or a continuous flow of, water from the head over the entire body. Tahara may refer to either the entire process, or to the ritual purification. Once the body is purified, the body is dressed in tachrichim, or shrouds, of white pure muslin or linen garments made up of ten pieces for a male and twelve for a female, which are identical for each Jew and which symbolically recalls the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Once the body is shrouded, the casket is closed. For burial in Israel, however, a casket is not used in most cemeteries.
The society may also provide shomrim, or watchers, to guard the body from theft, vermin, or desecration until burial. In some communities this is done by people close to the departed or by paid shomrim hired by the funeral home. At one time, the danger of theft of the body was very real; in modern times the watch has become a way of honoring the deceased.
A specific task of the burial society is tending to the dead who have no next-of-kin. These are termed a meit mitzvah (Hebrew: מת מצוה, a mitzvah corpse), as tending to a meit mitzvah overrides virtually any other positive commandment (mitzvat aseh) of Torah law, an indication of the high premium the Torah places on the honor of the dead.
Many burial societies hold one or two annual fast days and organise regular study sessions to remain up-to-date with the relevant articles of Jewish law. In addition, most burial societies also support families during the shiv'ah (traditional week of mourning) by arranging prayer services, meals and other facilities.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, chevra kadisha societies were formed as landsmanshaft fraternal societies in the United States. Some landsmanshaftn were burial societies while others were "independent" groups split off from the chevras. There were 20,000 such landsmanshaftn in the U.S. at one time.