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I've heard that one vector for the spread of Ebola is ceremonial contact that family members have with the body of their deceased relative. That led me to think about how Judaism deals with this issue. The tahara (purification) process has volunteers, who aren't medical professionals, working with the body.

Now, I'm certain that the principle of pikuach nefesh would preclude any tahara activities that would endanger the lives of the volunteers involved. I'm wondering how this is implemented in practice and whether it's addressed explicitly in the literature.

  • Do people participating in a tahara take special precautions if the deceased had an infectious disease?

  • Are there situations in which a tahara is simply not performed for this reason?

  • Are these concerns dealt with in the Halachic literature?

  • Note that Y.D. 364:4 has several cases where no tahara is performed for reasons other than pikuach nefesh, so there is an established non-tahara procedure in general. – Yishai Oct 2 '14 at 14:47
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  • @GershonGold Reading ... Who's the writer? I just came across "אטיולוגיה" and had to look it up in Hebrew, and then in English! – Isaac Moses Oct 2 '14 at 17:02
  • Rabbi Simcha Roth from Herziliya – Gershon Gold Oct 2 '14 at 17:06
  • The answer to all your points is yes. But I bet you were looking for more than that in an answer... – Double AA Oct 2 '14 at 20:22
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I asked a member of the Greater Washington [DC] Chevra Kadisha about this, and she told me that when they receive a deceased person who had an infectious disease, they can be directed to do a procedure called a "lay-over." In this case, they do not wash or dress the body or otherwise come in contact with it. Instead, they say the appropriate prayers and simply lay the shrouds over the body.

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    +1. Note that you don't answer the OP's question "Are these concerns dealt with in the Halachic literature?" ;-) – MTL Nov 23 '14 at 3:00
  • @Shokhet, I agree that this is a partial answer. I am still hoping to get answers for the other parts. – Isaac Moses Nov 23 '14 at 3:01
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    Also heard that from Rabbi Elchanan Zohn of Queens, a major figure in the Chevra Kaddisha sphere. He said it was still the case with CJD (human mad cow) with exposed wounds, and what people did with AIDS in the early 1980s when no one knew how that scary disease was/wasn't transmitted. – Shalom Mar 20 at 2:36
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Regarding the spread of COVID-19, the National Association of Chevra Kadisha headed by Rav Elchonon Zohn stated the following guidelines:

The following are suggested guidelines and precautions necessary to protect Chevra Kadisha members as they perform a taharah:

  1. Strictly follow the general list of universal precautions recommended by the CDC and OSHA. These include:
    • Use of gloves (Nitrile or Latex are recommended)
    • Disposable gowns that cover the arms to the wrist
    • Additional personal protection equipment (PPE) is optional, such as booties, head covers and face masks. People with glasses may find that masks fog their glasses. In those cases, a face shield might be more suitable.
    • If one is wearing open shoes, foot covers (booties) must be used.
  2. Prepare any supplies you might need for the taharah in advance. This includes Monsel’s Solution in a cup, toothpicks, Q-tips, cotton towels, chucks, etc.

  3. Discard all unused supplies that were present at the taharah. Do not put them back with your clean supplies.

  4. Use of tishah kabin is strongly recommended instead of using a mikvah.

  5. To prevent the possible escape of respiratory fluids from the mouth and nose of the nifter/es, pack their mouth and nose with Webril cotton towels for the entire taharah process. These should only be removed once the nifter/es has been placed in the aron.

  6. Clean and sanitize all surfaces, including counter tops, doorknobs, spigots, etc, before leaving the taharah room. Clorox bleach is the preferred sanitizer.

  7. Anyone who has any symptoms of illness may not attend a taharah.

  8. Make sure your funeral home and chevra are well-stocked with all necessary supplies.

It only addresses one aspect of your question, but the timely aspect of this question made it worth sharing at least this partial answer.

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  • A better link would be to the National Association of Chevra Kadisha that issued the new guidelines here for dealing with a covid-19 met(meta): myemail.constantcontact.com/… – Yehuda W Mar 25 at 12:57
  • For covid-19 especially, it is important to stay abreast of new medical findings. This Times of Israel page just reports that the covid virus lives on after death, in blood: timesofisrael.com/… – Yehuda W Mar 27 at 0:59
  • My friend who does this said they are basically wearing hazmat suits. Which can be rough when dealing with eight bodies in an evening... – user6591 Mar 31 at 12:33

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