Those who are born among us are gently washed, swaddled, and watched over around the clock. Through Sacred Undertaking, we offer the same loving care to those who die among us, taming our own fears of death in the process.
These imperatives of true kindness can only be fulfilled through our immediate, physical presence. Sacred Undertaking expresses perhaps the ultimate Isabella Freedman commitment to "Soil, Soul, and Tzedek":
SOIL: We are companions on the human journey of return to the earth. The recent green burial movement affirms the values that Jewish burial traditions have upheld for millennia: sustainability, simplicity, and equality.
SOUL: We are companions on the spiritual journey of each soul taking leave of each body in our care. We are guided by our legacy of Jewish afterlife traditions, even as we encounter the mysteries beyond. We honor our dead as “bound up in the bond of life.”
TZEDEK (Justice): We realize that true sustainability, simplicity, and equality are only possible when we accept death as integral to the cycle of life. Sacred Undertaking offers a return from the alienating, costly, and destructive consequences of death denial, to the renewal of our relationships, our communities, and our world.
Levayah, our Jewish word for funeral, means "accompanying." We stretch ourselves to be more fully present in this accompanying process. Ultimately, we can experience a deep and reassuring connection to all those who have entered the mystery before us—as well as to the Source of Life, to which countless generations have already returned, and countless generations will return after us.
Helping people move from this world to the next is one of the holiest things I can do.
Jewish death-related practices are grounded in the unshakeable belief in the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the individual, and the emotional and spiritual needs of the mourners. For centuries, every Jewish community has maintained a fellowship that serves anonymously to do the holy mitzvah of taking care of the dead.
This Hevra Kadisha or “Sacred Fellowship” provides the opportunity for its members to midwife souls from this world to the next, to face death as a part of the circle of life, and to uplift themselves and the community through this holy tradition.
This work of ushering souls is special indeed, and comes from the central Jewish belief that each human being is a soul inhabiting and animating a physical body. The physical body is the vehicle, the chariot through which the soul experiences the physical three-dimensional world while a person is alive, and is therefore considered a holy vessel. When one dies, the soul leaves the body, yet lives on.
The work of the Hevra Kadisha is to help the soul return to the subtler dimensions of creation, while respecting the dignity of the body it no longer inhabits. This is called kavod ha-met, or honoring the dead, and is the guiding principle for all Hevra work. Everything associated with Jewish death practices is based on respect: respect for the body, the mourners, and the departing soul.
Recently I participated in the ritual to prepare a man for burial, after which one team member said, "I hope we meet again under better circumstances." Someone replied, "These are the most holy of circumstances. These are the best circumstances." It reminded me why I do this work.