A ḥevrah kaddisha (חֶבְרָה קַדִּישָׁא, literally “holy society”) is a group of individuals who collectively tend to the bodies of our deceased, preparing them for burial and tending them until funeral and burial rituals take place. They cleanse the body and dress it in a shroud, all a part of the ritual of tohorah (טׇהֳרָה) (see our prior article on kamatz katan), the purification of the body and by association purification of the spirit.
The body is cleansed with a flow of water over the body from the head down or by immersion in a special mikveh. The deceased is given tender, sensitive care, affording the dignity we all deserve as we depart. The shroud is made of white muslin or linen, thus equalizing us all at death. All of this preparation is done with appropriate chanting and recitation of berakhot, with readings from Torah, Prophets, and the Song of Songs.
The members of the ḥevrah kaddisha beg the forgiveness of the deceased and offer prayers for the soul’s eternal peace, as the shrouded body is wrapped in a cloth (or a tallit rather than a plain cloth, with the corner cut off to show that it is no longer to be used for prayer) and placed into the casket and prepared for burial. (In Israel usually no casket is used.)
Sometimes members of the ḥevrah kaddisha will provide shomerim, watchers over the body so that the deceased will not be alone until burial.
Here in Pittsburgh we are fortunate to have two such burial societies - one Orthodox Chevra Kadisha and one working with Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and others. The latter is the New Community Chevra Kadisha (the NCCK). As a Conservative congregation we encourage you to work with the NCCK at the time of passing of a loved one. They are all volunteers, and their organization relies on donations for expenses.
Because tohorah is an act of loving kindness done specifically for the dead, who (we presume) can never repay it, it is considered one of the highest acts of charity.