One of the most important elements of a proper Jewish burial is the Tahara, preparing the body by the Chevra Kaddisha for its final rest, until the Resurrection of the Dead in the era of Moshiach. There is no mystery to the Tahara. It is a simple, yet dignified ritual that allows the person to meet his Maker with the utmost respect and dignity.
A proper Tahara includes cleansing, ritually washing, and dressing the deceased's body. Those who perform this Chesed Shel Emet (true act of kindness) recite special prayers, beseeching G‑d to lift the soul into the Heavens and eternal rest.
It is a pity that the observance of this simple, meaningful, and vital mitzva is neither strictly observed, nor readily offered by some Jewish funeral homes unless asked for (and sometimes insisted upon) by the family.
If people only knew the merit and solace it brings to the soul of the deceased, no one would deny their loved one a kosher Tahara.
Shrouds and Dressing
Unlike in other religions and practices, a Jewish person is not buried in his or her usual clothing. Similarly, jewelry or other adornments are not worn.
As discussed earlier, one's soul and its spiritual rectification is far more important following death than any honor he could possibly get from his association with earthly possessions. Thus, the Jewish funeral emphasizes the spiritual and sublime over the physical and material.
According to Jewish tradition, a deceased's body is dressed in plain whiteTachrichim (traditional shrouds). These garments are hand-made from linen or muslin and are considered fitting for someone who is about to stand before G‑d in judgment.
Another reason given is that using simple shrouds ensures that those who cannot afford fancy clothing are not "embarrassed" that they do not have any.
In addition to Tachrichim, a man is also buried in his Tallit (prayer shawl). The Tallit should be given to the Chevra Kaddisha before they prepare the body for burial. In the case that a man did not have his Tallit, the funeral home will usually provide one.
Dressing the deceased in traditional Tachrichim is so important, and the meaning so profound, that Jewish law insists that the funeral be postponed until proper Tachrichim are obtained or made - even though the same Code of Jewish Law normally prohibits any unnecessary delays before burial.
It is a Torah commandment to return the body to the earth upon passing, as it it written "Unto dust shall you return" (Genesis 3:19). Our sages teach that this means placing the body directly in the ground with no casket. In Israel, this is still the prevailing custom. In America, most, if not all, states mandate the use of caskets by law.
Nevertheless, it is not proper to bury the dead in ornate coffins. This is a gentile custom that pays honor to the person's or the relative's wealth, instead of the good deeds he performed. If one wants to truly honor the deceased, the money that could have been spent on an ornate coffin should be given to charity in the merit of the deceased.
Jewish tradition requires that the person be buried in a plain, modest, casket. The casket must be made from material that will disintegrate in the ground, allowing the body to return to the bosom of the earth as quickly as possible, and enabling the soul to attain true and final peace.
Thus, metal caskets should not be used. Some religious authorities do not even allow metal nails or bracing in a wooden casket. In their opinion, metal is the material of weapons and war, and one should not go to one's eternal peace aided by elements of war. In addition to being made of wood or other organic material, the casket interior should be plain and unadorned. It should not be lined nor filled with pillows and the like.
It is an age-old desire of Jewish people to be buried in the Land of Israel because of its sanctity, which is said to aid in the soul's atonement. When burial occurs in any other country, the Chevra Kaddisha places earth from the Land of Israel in the casket.
Article by Zalman Goldstein, chabad.org