By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(AJNews) – On May 26, 1907, the Edmonton Hebrew Association purchased what is today, the city’s Jewish cemetery. For 113 years the Chevra Kadisha of Edmonton has seen to the observant burials of the local Jewish community – but just as importantly, they have attended to the needs of mourning family members.
“There is a 24-hour phone number for families to contact us,” explained the not-for-profit organization’s president Rhoda Friedman. “For the person who has the phone, it’s nerve wracking,” added longtime member Jim Heilik. “The phone is lying on the table next to the bed, and when it rings, you jump – so each volunteer only gets a two-week shift.”
For over 100 years the group has partnered with Connelly-McKinley, an Edmonton-based funeral home. “We are a burial society, not funeral directors,” clarified Friedman.
“Our objective is to take care of everything so that the family doesn’t have to worry about details” – Jim Heilik
With a direct online connection to Connelly-McKinley, the Chevra Kadisha is able to streamline the process of registering the death, making arrangements for transporting decedents to the chapel for burial preparations and to the cemetery for the funeral.
Edmonton’s Chevra Kadisha, comprised of about 60 active volunteer members, works with families as they face some of the most difficult moments of their lives. “When there is a death, the family contacts us, then we ask the bereaved to stay with the decedent until we can arrange for transportation, because the body must be accompanied at all times until burial,” said Friedman. A person, called a shomer, stays with the body, saying prayers until departure to the cemetery. “We have several shomrim, and they take turns,” she added.
Both Friedman and Heilik agree that this is a difficult duty to undertake – one that invariably goes hand-in-hand with deep solitary reflection. In the Chevra Kadisha’s modest downtown office, adorned with a dozen or so photographs spanning past decades, a wall of cabinetry houses an unassuming murphy-bed to accommodate the shomrim as they safeguard the body of the deceased.
Although the phone may not ring during a volunteer’s two-week rotation, if the society is contacted, everyone must be ready with all hands on deck. “I didn’t calculate it myself, but one of the phone carriers has estimated that the average funeral involves about 13 phone calls: Connelly, the family, the cemetery, the rabbis, the shomer, the person who prepares the body. I know when I have the phone, I’ll have my landline, my cell phone and the Chevra phone – calls are incoming, calls are outgoing – because you really can’t waste any time,” explained Heilik.
Everyone at the society is keenly aware of the many manifestations of loss and grief. Reflecting on her own experiences working with bereaved families, Friedman commented: “Nobody mourns in the same way. As we are registering a death, there is genealogical information that we record. This stage of the process gives the family space to really remember and reflect on the person, where they came from, what they did. And people start to talk – and we listen. It’s a very meaningful time.” Friedman did clarify that although the Chevra Kadisha supports families with their grief, it is the preparation of the body and funeral arrangements that they are focused on.
Unlike standard North American funerals, the Chevra Kadisha approaches all burial preparations in the same way. The body of the deceased is prepared according to Jewish ritual, the tachrichim (burial garment/shroud) and kosher casket are the same for everybody. “There’s no menu of things to choose from,” said Heilik. “People don’t select from an assortment of different caskets, there’s no upgrades, no fancy additions – there’s one fee for everyone, and everyone is treated equally.”
As a not-for-profit, their prices are reviewed annually, he explained. “The fee represents our annual costs, which include cost for indigent funerals, planned repair and maintenance to the equipment, the chapels and the cemetery itself; increasing costs from our vendors, future development and, because this cemetery will have to be cared for in perpetuity, contributions to a perpetual care fund. The current cost per funeral is $10,500 plus GST. We are not able to sell plots, however we do allow people to make arrangements for estate planning for the terminally ill and elderly.”
“Although,” interjected Friedman, “we do, of course, have cases where people cannot afford the burial, and we don’t turn anyone away.” All Jews wishing to be buried by the Chevra Kadisha can have their final wishes respected.
The society maintains strict rules about how matzevot (headstones) look, although they do not handle unveilings. Uniquely, Edmonton’s Chevra Kadisha is one of the last burial societies that sews their own burial shrouds.
“Some of the women who sew get together a few times a year to sew the tachrichim – we do it right upstairs,” said Friedman gesturing to a loft above the main office. “For men we include their tallit if the family chooses. If the family does not provide a tallit then we provide them with one.”
The Chevra Kadisha, depending on the family’s instructions, will contact rabbis or designated officiants to conduct the service. Both Friedman and Heilik expressed frustration with the restrictions necessitated by COVID-19.
“Since the pandemic began, we’ve really had to adjust how we do things,” explained Heilik. “A Zoom shivah is not a substitute.”
Nevertheless, during the planning of a funeral, the Chevra Kadisha contacts all its male members in order to ensure that an Orthodox minyan will be present to recite kaddish. “We do things the Orthodox way so that we can serve the needs of everyone. There is no room for interpretation.”
Many Edmontonians have, unfortunately, had occasion to visit the city’s Jewish Cemetery for a funeral, an unveiling, or yahrzeit. But what the Chevra Kadisha does goes beyond what is immediately apparent. The volunteers provide a valuable service at the most vulnerable of times.
“What we do is not pleasant, but it is fulfilling” offered Heilik. They seek to support families, while adhering to Halakhic ritual as the deceased is returned to the earth.
“We want people to understand what it is that we do, and the services that we provide,” Friedman finished by saying. Should the need arise, the Chevra Kadisha wants to ensure that members of the Jewish community know where to turn. When the need arises, the number to the 24 hour phone-line is: 780.482.3065.
Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.