Questions and Answers from the Calgary Chevra Kadisha

By: Harold Lipton and Susan Dvorkin

(Calgary) – The following are some questions that have been directed to the Calgary Chevra Kadisha – and answers.

I recently buried a loved one, and on the invoice Chevra Kadisha sent me, there was an item labelled “perpetual care.” What does that mean?

Our condolences on your loss. The Chevra Kadisha carries an ongoing responsibility to respect the deceased buried in its cemeteries and to provide ongoing comfort to mourning relatives and friends. This includes keeping the cemetery grounds in a proper and presentable condition, e.g. mowing and trimming lawns, pruning shrubbery, snow removal, maintenance of “common” space such as sidewalks, retaining walls, and fences. It does not include repairs or maintenance of grave monuments which is the responsibility of the family. Erlton Cemetery is now considered full in that no more plots are expected to be sold, but the cost of maintaining the grounds will continue indefinitely and must be covered in a different way. The Chevra Kadisha has set aside funds in an account which is invested securely. The proceeds of these investments will cover the maintenance of Erlton Cemetery in perpetuity. A portion of every funeral charge is deposited into this account. The Chevra Kadisha has been doing this for many years, only now, we clearly label on each invoice how much is set aside for perpetual care.

I am on the Chevra Kadisha funeral notice announcement list, and I receive an email announcing each funeral. However, these notices do not make mention of surviving family members. Why is that? I want to know who the extended family is so I can pay my respects appropriately.

Our funeral notice announcements contain only details of a scheduled funeral. Surviving family members are usually named in an obituary which we do not publish for several reasons. Some bereaved families do not want this information published. A funeral is arranged very quickly after a passing in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. There is much to be arranged and we do not press the family to immediately write an obituary. There is also not enough time to obtain the permission of family members to publish their names. We also want to avoid inadvertently omitting a family member which could be easy to do amid the stress of a passing, or when there is, unfortunately, a division within a family.

I have a relative whose health is declining. How do I go about making arrangements?

We are sorry this is a difficult time for you. If your loved one has pre-purchased a plot, there is nothing you need to do until your relative has passed. Once they have passed, please call (403) 244-4717. This line is open 24/7 and will be answered either by our office staff or the McInnis & Holloway answering service. Our funeral planner will then be notified, and arrangements will be made to bring your loved one to the Chevra to be kept in our care until burial. Our funeral planner will be in touch with you shortly after notification (if during the day), or early the next morning, or after the conclusion of Shabbat or Festival to arrange a meeting with the family members to make arrangements.

I know Jewish practice is to bury as soon as possible but I’ve noticed at times there is a delay of a few days. Why is that?

You are correct that Jewish practice is to bury as soon as possible and the Chevra does its utmost to fulfill that practice. However, there are occasions where there has to be a delay in burial, and we fully appreciate the distress this causes to the mourning family. As a small Jewish community, we rely on third party contractors for opening graves for burial. While we have an arrangement in place for a 24 hour turnaround, multiple deaths, sub-zero weather, or Shabbat/Festivals may cause additional delays in the funeral. Additionally, there are times when family members are travelling to Calgary for the funeral, and we try to accommodate a family’s request to wait until they arrive if at all possible.

I have read that cremation is becoming more popular and may be a more environmentally friendly form of burial. Will that lead to a change in Chevra practice?

It is true that cremations have become more popular in North America. However, there are contradictory opinions on whether cremation is more environmentally friendly as the energy required to complete the cremation leaves a sizeable carbon footprint. The traditional Jewish practices of burial are actually considered among the most environmentally friendly types of burial. In any case, cremation is still clearly against traditional Jewish law and practice, and there will be no change in the policies of the Chevra Kadisha.

I want to volunteer for the Chevra but don’t know how I can help. The idea of death scares me.

We appreciate your interest in volunteering for the society. There are a number of volunteer activities that you could be involved in that would not expose you to any deceased member of our community who is in our care. We are always happy to have volunteers (women) join our sewing group that prepares the tachrichim (shrouds) used to prepare the deceased. Both men and women (depending on the denomination) can be called upon to participate in making up a minyan at a funeral for someone who does not have enough family/friends to do so and in doing that, the mitzvah of saying kaddish for the deceased can take place.  Additionally, special knowledge of IT, legal, accounting or HR are always welcome on one of our committees or on the Board of Directors should there be a vacancy.

I recently attended a non-Jewish funeral. There was an open casket viewing which seemed to be a nice way to say goodbye. Can I request that too?

Jewish practice when it comes to death is to prepare the deceased for their journey to their final resting place. This involves the act of Tahara, where the deceased is ritually washed and dressed in white burial shrouds prior to being placed in the casket. The reason for this simple dress is to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Jewish law does not involve embalming or dressing a deceased in good clothes for viewing and discourages an open casket. Jewish tradition encourages us to remember our loved ones as they were, not as they appear now. It is for this reason that we do not practice open casket viewing.

Several people I have spoken to say that you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo. Is that correct?

That is an urban myth. While it is the case that Jewish tradition discourages tattoos, it does not disqualify anyone from a Jewish burial.

I have a non-Jewish partner.  Can we be buried beside each other in the Jewish cemetery?

There is a section in the 37th Street Jewish Cemetery in Calgary where a Jewish person can be buried beside a non-Jewish partner. There are certain guidelines to this kind of burial that will be explained to you should you wish to purchase plots.

I have a friend who performs Tahara at the Jewish chapel (the process of preparing a deceased for Jewish burial), but she says very little about her work there, even when we ask her about it. Why is that?

The act of performing Tahara is considered “chesed shel emet” – a deed of true loving kindness. This means that when we perform Tahara, we expect no compensation or reciprocation. At the most obvious level, this means that the deceased cannot pay us back for this act of kindness. But we have extended this principle to also mean that in this volunteer role, we do not seek any kind of acknowledgement. We do not expect the bereaved family to be beholden to anyone specifically for this service and we do not seek to have any of our volunteers publicly glorified for their work. Tahara volunteers are discouraged from discussing their work publicly. Since we also practice according to the principle that everyone is treated the same by our volunteers, it should not matter who performed the tahara. Families can therefore safely assume that their loved one was treated with the utmost respect.

Why can’t I pre-purchase an assigned plot?

The management of a Jewish cemetery is complicated. Jewish practice is to bury a man beside a woman only if they were married. It takes careful planning to avoid ending up with “leftover” spots that cannot be used at all. It is also very costly to open up a new row, and we will not do that until we know several new plots are needed. Therefore, we are now preselling “interment rights” meaning we will guarantee you a spot in our cemetery after a payment agreement has been established. The actual plot will be determined when the time of need has arrived. When one member of a married couple has been interred, we will reserve the spot beside them for the spouse once a payment agreement has been arranged. This arrangement can also extend to other family members wishing to have plots beside their relatives.

I have some old prayer books, prayer shawls and kippot that I want to discard. I have heard that it is disrespectful to throw them in the garbage and the cemeteries have some sort of burial area that they can be placed in. Is that true and how do I go about doing this?

Yes it is true. The burial area is called a Geniza, which means “hiding place”, but it is really more a vault like structure. Sacred items can also be buried. This is an ancient custom going back hundreds of years. We are not supposed to simply trash sacred documents, i.e. documents that contain the name of God. Instead we bury them. There is a Geniza at both of the Chevra Kadisha’s cemeteries, though both are full. Kippot are not actually considered sacred and do not need special disposal. Hebrew secular literature and non-religious school texts also do not need special treatment. Tallaisim, prayer books, and bibles are considered sacred, even those little prayer booklets given out at weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and photocopies of prayers and Biblical text.  Tallaisim can be used for Tahara (preparing deceased for burial) since they will be buried.

Individuals, synagogues, and schools are welcome to make use of our facilities when disposing of sacred objects. However, we are now waiting until Spring 2024 to accept any items.  We ask that you wait until you have a sizeable quantity and then call our office ahead of time to schedule a delivery. Merely leaving them outside at the Chevra Kadisha risks having them exposed to the elements until they can be properly handled.

I have a question for the Chevra Kadisha but don’t know who to contact. What should I do?

Our office hours are from 9:00am -1:00pm Monday to Friday and our telephone number is (403) 244-4717. You are always welcome to call and leave a message at that number. Outside of office hours or if staff is away from their desks, this number is forwarded to the McInnis & Holloway’s answering service, and they will contact us with any messages left. Alternatively, any inquiries can be made by email at and will be directed to the appropriate person.

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