Judaism maintains that both body and soul are holy, an understanding that not only informs every aspect of life, but also every aspect of death.
The principle of kavod hameis, literally, “respect for the deceased,” directs every detail of after-death ritual, from how the body is handled to the clothing in which it is dressed.
The Torah does not specify exactly what clothing a person should be buried in, and for generations, people were buried in their own clothing.
However, over time, the ideal of dignity in burial clothing transformed into ostentation. The deceased were dressed in ever more expensive and lavish garments, leading the Talmud to note that “the burial was more difficult for relatives than the death itself.” (Kesubos 8b)
Rabban Gamliel, the Jewish leader at the time of the second Temple, saw that families were being unduly burdened by runaway spending on burial. He put an end to this misguided attempt to show extra respect for the deceased with his own personal example: he asked to be buried in simple, inexpensive linen garments.
These garments, called tachrichim, have been the standard Jewish burial “uniform” for the last two thousand years.
The word tachrichim is usually translated as “shrouds,” and in fact, tachrichim include a large sheet that wraps the body, protecting it from insensitive gaze. But it also includes a full set of clothing: pants, a shirt, a jacket, and a head covering.
Tachrichim do not merely set a physical standard; every aspect of them is layered with meaning.
The very fact that we are all buried in the same clothing underscores the idea that each of us — no matter what advantages or disadvantages we may have had during our lifetime — is equal in death.
Tachrichim also evoke the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, as he performed the Yom Kippur service in the Temple, a service that brought atonement to the nation. This accentuates the idea that after death, we will each experience a “personal” Yom Kippur.
Although tachrichim may be made from any natural, biodegradable material, such as cotton and muslin, linen remains the standard. The Kohen Gadol’s garments, as well as the burial garments requested by Rabban Gamliel, were made entirely of linen, a material recognized in the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah as conferring unique spiritual benefits.
The garments have no pockets because we take nothing but our good deeds and Torah learning to the next world. They have no knots to symbolize their impermanence, reflecting our belief in the resurrection of the dead. Like so many aspects of Jewish burial tradition — and of Jewish tradition, generally — these simple garments interweave the spiritual with the material.