Like little children, we often dislike rules. But God’s rules show us how much God values us, and His relationship with us. The many laws and regulations in the Old Testament were meant to teach the Israelites the same thing.
All the clean/unclean and holy/unholy rules were designed to illustrate that a person could not even touch something that was impure, and then approach God in His Tabernacle. God is holy, righteous, and just. One cannot simply sin at will—or even by mistake—and then worship Him. The Laws of purity were to instill a sense of holy living in His people. Most of the rules involving unclean foods and touching unclean objects required only a washing of the body, and you were unclean only until sundown.
God is the author of Life and Death. Coming into contact with death, then, must separate one from the Creator of all Life. The Law of Moses states that anyone who touches a dead body shall be unclean for seven days. Imagine losing a loved one, and then being unclean, having to remain outside the camp, away from everyone else, for an entire week. Misery heaped upon tragedy.
Chevra Kadisha—literally holy society—is a Jewish burial society. The Chevra Kadisha especially tends to those with no immediate next-of-kin. Caring for the dead is seen as the ultimate act of kindness, since the dead cannot possibly repay you. Before the society, the entire community took responsibility to bury the dead. No one was able to work or eat until the body was properly buried. Eventually, a few in town decided to carry the burden, so that others could continue.
Though written record of their existence isn’t available until the fourth century, I believe that the practice had to have existed from the earliest times. Perhaps not as a formal society, but I think there must have been men and women happy to step in and prepare the bodies for burial, and as a result remain unclean for seven days.
I see this “last act of kindness” for the dead as a generous gift to the family—to bear the burden of separating from their extended family in their time of greatest need.
What better way to show kindness, both to the living, and the dead?