The roots of the chevra kadisha likely begin with the purchase of cemetery land in 1896. Early financial records for the synagogue include many burial-related expenses, like burial, tachrichem (shrouds), carriage, mazewah (stone), tahare brett (board for ritual washing), watching (sitting with the deceased before burial), kever (grave), and grave digging, which suggests that the main body of the synagogue handled these activities initially. 1 The pinkas of the chevra kadisha suggests that it was formally organized on 12/7/1911 after the “persistent efforts” of Rabbi Widom. 2
In the early years membership in the chevra kadisha was separate from synagogue membership and entailed traditional responsibilities for preparing the dead for burial. Practically, though, it seems only a small number of people participated in this way. In later years, after the group ceased to handle burial preparations (due to the shift to funeral homes by the mid-60s), the chevra kadisha transitioned into more of a cemetery committee, though their annual seudot continued into the 70s.
The chevra kadisha functioned until October 2014, when its assets and responsibilities were transferred to Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill. It was by the far the longest-running Jewish organization in Homestead.
Much more information about the activities of the chevra kadisha can be found here.
The chevra kadisha is one of the few groups apart from the synagogue board whose records survive, due to the centrality of its functions. Members got free burial plots, and the business of selling additional plots, family lots, and funeral services was an important source of income for the congregation.
Boxes 10-15 of the records in the Rauh Jewish Archives contain chevra kadisha records. The key volumes are the ledgers in Box 13. (More recent records are in the offices of Congregation Beth Shalom.) Highlights:
Box 4, Cash book 1902-1916 ↩
The Jewish Criterion, 9/5/1922. Also, 1910 had an unusually high number of burials compare to previous years — 14, compared to 6 in the previous three years and 7 in 1906, the second-highest number since the first (known) burial in 1898 (it’s difficult to account for child burials). Though 1911 was back down to 7, it’s possible that there was just getting to be too much work to keep handling it informally. Regardless, halachically and traditionally it was important to have a proper chevra kadisha. ↩