The Chevra Kadisha of Calgary held its annual volunteer dinner last month, and in the same fashion as they conduct their business, the evening was low key, unassuming and without fanfare.
Is it appropriate to celebrate an institution that deals with death? The dinner’s purpose wasn’t to celebrate the business of death, but rather to take pride in the chevra’s role in the community and, more importantly, recognize and acknowledge its many volunteers, without whom this organization would not exist.
Calgary’s chevra kadisha is one of a very few in North America that are able to support their Jewish community’s burial needs solely through the tireless efforts of volunteers, and it’s been doing so for more than 108 years.
Volunteers come together as a community, regardless of their personal philosophies or levels of observance, to honour the centuries-old tradition of preparing the deceased for their final journey with the utmost respect and dignity. In this way, they link themselves to their people’s past, present and future while performing the mitzvah of chesed shel emet, the last act of loving kindness, for which repayment is neither expected nor repaid.
Volunteers of any chevra kadisha have always been referred to as a holy or sacred society, and those who participate in the various tasks have often done so anonymously. While that is respectful of traditions, this anonymity can make it difficult to recruit new volunteers.
Although many are involved because their parents and grandparents also volunteered, without a newer generation of volunteers, the tradition of hand-sewn tachrichim (shrouds) created by the women, may end, to be replaced by imports from factories in the East.
Undoubtedly, in larger communities such as Toronto and Montreal, business is done in a more commercial manner by outsourcing and purchasing tachrichim. But the way Calgary’s chevra honours, cares for and buries its dead completely “in house” says so much about this small, but very caring, Jewish community.
All Jews, regardless of communal affiliation or non-affiliation, are entitled to a proper Jewish burial, and the chevra won’t deny anyone this honour, even if financial hardship is an issue. A situation may also occur in which the chevra is given the important task of burying a met mitzvah – a deceased who has nobody else to take care of his or her funeral. To this end, the fundamental principle of kibud hamet (honouring the deceased) is reinforced, as every person is treated equally and in the same manner – the shrouds used are the same for everyone, and the casket used is usually the same for everyone as well.
At some point in their lives, every Jew in Calgary will have to use the services of the chevra kadisha. It brings them together as a community at perhaps their greatest time of need. Death is not something many wish to speak about, plan for or be associated with, because it is accompanied by sorrow and pain. Donating one’s time, as a volunteer is truly a mitzvah because there is no repayment.
The volunteers in this small Jewish community are truly priceless. They are asked to perform their duties with love and respect, and often with very little notice. They ensure that the deceased is properly prepared for their final appearance and judgment before God and their passage into the Olam Haba (the world to come.
What a wonderful mitzvah to be proud of!