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"Teach us to treasure each day... " (Psalm 90)
Jewish tradition is wise in its understanding of human needs at the time of death. Customs and practices surrounding death and bereavement are a gift from the past to help guide us during a time when we may feel we have lost our bearings. The central values expressed by our tradition are:
The first phase of the mourning process is called aninut. An immediate relative of the deceased who is going through aninut is called an onen. During aninut, which lasts from the time one learns of the death until the burial takes place, tradition recognizes the inner turmoil of immediate relatives. They are not expected to observe social amenities or go to work. They must be free to focus upon the need to make immediate decisions regarding the deceased. Judaism recognizes as primary mourners those who have lost a parent, spouse, sibling, or child.
When a death has occurred, the focus moves quickly to funeral arrangements. Many decisions must be made in a short period of time. You will need to notify family and friends, write an obituary, schedule a time for the funeral, decide who will deliver the eulogy, and choose pallbearers. You are not alone during this time. Do not hesitate to ask your rabbi, family members and friends for help with these decisions. Neighbors, members of the Jewish community and friends will also want to help with other tasks. Take them up on offers to provide meals, child care, or rides.
Those who should initially be contacted include your rabbi, the Chevra Kadisha, and the funeral home. In Lansing, our local Chevra Kadisha has worked with Estes-Leadley Funeral Home. Families are, of course, free to choose any funeral home they wish, however it is possible that other funeral homes may not allow the Chevra Kadisha to supplant their commercial services and may not stock the simple, inexpensive coffins encouraged by our tradition. Contact numbers are:
Congregation Kehillat Israel, 882-0049
Congregation Shaarey Zedek, 351-3570
Estes-Leadley Funeral Home, 482-1651
Chevra Kadisha Chairperson, Betty Seagull, contact info here
P'kuach nefesh, saving a life, is one of Judaism's highest values. Although the principle of kevod ha-met has traditionally regarded autopsy as a desecration of the body it is permitted if the knowledge gained may help to save the life of another. Organ donation is very much in keeping with the principle of p'kuach nefesh.
Traditional burial practices are still possible following autopsy and organ donation. The physicians involved should be informed of the family's intention to follow Jewish traditions so that the body will be disturbed only to the extent necessary.
Kevod ha-met is traditionally observed by the practice of shmira (literally, "guarding'). The body is not left alone between the time of death and the time of burial. Our community will provide volunteers for shmira by family request. Non-Jewish friends and family can also participate in this respectful tradition, which involves sitting quietly with the deceased in the funeral home and reading Psalms or meditating. (The body is not on view.) The Chevra Kadisha will coordinate scheduling shomrim.
Jewish tradition supports burial as soon as feasible following death. Traditionally, this took place within 24 hours, however, it is not uncommon for a longer period of time to pass in order to allow relatives to travel from a distance to attend the funeral. Burial should occur before Shabbat if at all possible; Jewish burials do not take place on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.
Traditionally, Jews return the body to the earth in its natural state and do not embalm or cremate, in keeping with Genesis 3:19, “For you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In ancient times embalming was an Egyptian practice. In modem times, it is a common Christian practice. Embalming is not required by law except in some cases when the body is to be shipped over a long distance.
Following the principle of kevod ha-met there is no viewing of the body and no “visitation” at the funeral home preceding the funeral. Instead, friends visit the home of the mourners following the burial, during the period of shiva.
The tahara, ritual purification, performed by members of the Chevra Kadisha, is a beautiful tradition of preparing the body for burial in a dignified and respectful manner. Tahara consists of three parts. First, the met (feminine: metah) is gently bathed (rechitsa). Next, the actual ritual purification (tahara) is performed by pouring a continuous stream of water over the met. Finally, the deceased is dried and dressed (halbashah) in simple white shrouds (tachrichim). If the deceased wore a tallit or kittel in life, these may be included as part of the tachrichim. The met is placed in the coffin, and a bit of earth from the land of Israel is sprinkled over the wrapped body. Each action is accompanied by appropriate prayers and biblical readings. Throughout the process care is taken to handle the met gently, lovingly, and with respect for modesty. Only women are involved in the preparation of women; men prepare men, although women may assist with the preparation of a man if not enough men are available.
Tradition decrees that rich and poor alike should be buried as simply as possible, dressed in unadorned white shrouds in a plain wood coffin (aron) without a lining. This dates back to the time of Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel II, in the second century C.E. Elaborate coffins are seen as unnecessary expense and undue ostentation. In death we are all equal.
Death rends the fabric of life. We symbolize this by rending a garment before the funeral. Some people actually tear a piece of clothing, others tear a black ribbon attached to their garment. The tradition is to tear on the left (close to the heart) for a parent or child, and on the right for spouses and siblings. The tradition of kria dates to biblical times. After we tear we recite the blessing, “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, dayan ha-emet” (Praised are you. Eternal our God, the true Judge). This is the same prayer which is said upon hearing of (or witnessing) a death. The rent garment or ribbon is worn throughout the period of shiva.
The time of the funeral service should be agreed upon with the rabbi. If no rabbi is available, our community can provide qualified lay leaders to lead the service.
A Jewish funeral is not elaborate. It includes the recitation of appropriate readings and psalms, a eulogy (hesped) which celebrates the life of the deceased, and closing prayers including the chanting of El malei rachamim (God filled with compassion...). There are no flowers or music (these are associated with joyous occasions). The casket is closed. If well-meaning friends unfamiliar with our tradition send flowers, do thank them for their kind intention. You may wish to display the flowers at home so that the donor who visits may see them and know his/her gesture was recognized and appreciated, or you may give them to someone not in mourning.
The funeral may include a service in the funeral home followed by a brief graveside service, or a graveside service only. Sometimes funerals are held at the synagogue. These decisions should be discussed with the rabbi or other person who will officiate.
Burial in our community takes place in the Jewish section of Evergreen Cemetery, which is owned by the City of Lansing. Both synagogues hold plots for purchase by members. The funeral home will arrange for the opening of the gravesite.
The graveside service is brief. After the coffin is lowered into the ground the mourners recite the Kaddish (a traditional prayer written in Aramaic which is recited by mourners). An emotional climax to the graveside service is the moment when principal mourners, followed by all those in attendance, throw a shovelful of earth onto the coffin. It is considered an act of kindness to help bury the deceased.
Mourners return home immediately after the funeral and are greeted by a “meal of consolation/condolence” prepared by friends, extended family, and community. Alternatively, the meal of condolence can be held at the synagogue. The rabbi or the Chevra Kadisha chair can assist with making the decision. about the location of the meal of condolence. If the meal is to be held at the synagogue, please remember that the building, including the kitchen, is a kosher-dairy/parve facility and no meats or meat products are permitted in the building.
It is traditional to place a pitcher of water, bowl, and towels outside the door of the house (or synagogue) for ritual hand washing by those returning from the interment. Round foods (e.g. boiled eggs, bagels, lentils) are often included to symbolize the wholeness of life.
Additional details may be found here: Guide for Setting Up the Meal of Condolence
Jewish traditions offer very specific recommendations for gradual re-entry into normal life. In the first week after the funeral, mourners are treated with the utmost care and respect. Their needs are met by the community.
The shiva period is traditionally seven days in length, counting the day of the funeral. This period of intense mourning ends on the morning of the seventh day. During shiva mourners do not go to work; they attend to the work of mourning. Our community will provide a daily minyan at the shiva home in the evening so that the primary mourners can say Kaddish if the family so desires. On Shabbat mourners leave their home and attend services at the synagogue so they can say Kaddish with the minyan there. Judaism requires the bereaved to celebrate Shabbat, in keeping with the belief that life takes precedence over death. Some families may choose a shorter observance of shiva, such as three days, or the days remaining between the funeral and the next Shabbat.
The shiva period gives mourners time to withdraw from the world and begin to integrate their loss. Our tradition emphasizes a focus on remembering and the emotional inner work of mourning. Thus, the mourner need not bathe, change clothing, shave or use makeup. Mirrors are covered. These practices may be modified according to individual needs, but their aim of keeping the focus on the spiritual and emotional aspects of loss should remain. The phrase “sitting shiva” refers to the practice of sitting on the floor to symbolize being struck down by grief. Mourners do not attend purely social functions during this period. It is customary to end the shiva period with a walk outside, symbolizing a beginning of returning to the world.
Some people observe a further mourning period known as shloshim (=30). This is a period of 30 days, counting from the day of the funeral. During this time primary mourners continue to say Kaddish for the deceased. After this, only children continue to say Kaddish for a parent for a period of eleven months (less one day). During the shloshim mourners return to work but are still not completely back in the world. This is expressed by avoiding parties, concerts and other forms of public entertainment. Following the principle that life always takes precedence over death, they may attend a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah, but not the reception. In modem practice people make their own decisions about which forms of mourning to observe and for how long. No one can prescribe the length of time it takes to integrate a loss. Psychologically it is wise to recognize that mourning may continue for an extended period of time and permit oneself to take those courses of action which provide comfort.
The grave stone can be selected shortly after the funeral, but the “unveiling” or placement of the marker is usually held after the eleven months of mourning are completed. The text on the stone usually includes the full name in Hebrew and English and the English and Hebrew dates of birth and death. The unveiling is the first opportunity to observe the mitzvah of visiting the grave after the placement of the monument. A rabbi need not be present, but families may wish to invite the rabbi to officiate. The unveiling service is a relatively recent practice. The ceremony is brief, with a few psalms and readings, a few words about the deceased, the removal of a covering from the monument, the recitation of El malei rachamim, and, if a minyan is present, the mourner's Kaddish. The unveiling marks the end of the period of formal mourning.
The anniversary of the death of a loved one is called yahrzeit, Yiddish for “year’s time.” This anniversary is observed according to the date of death on the Hebrew calendar. It is traditional to light a special yahrzeit candle which burns for 24 hours to mark this anniversary. Since Jewish days begin at sunset the candle is lit on the evening before the day of death. There is no blessing for lighting a yahrzeit candle.
Other may simply meditate on the life of the deceased and pray privately or choose to read Psalms or other inspirational readings. Some people use the day to participate in an activity which reflects the values of the deceased.
There is a close connection between tzedakah (“righteous giving”) and Jewish mourning customs. Tzedakah is a way to make memory tangible. Giving money to or working for causes and organizations that were important to the deceased creates a living memorial which keeps their beliefs alive and active. Through tzedakah we connect the living with the dead in the work of tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” Our tradition warns against excessive mourning. Helping to repair the world is a way to translate grief into healing and justice, tzedek.
Saying Kaddish, Anita Diament, Shocken Books, 1998.
The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm, Jonathan David Publishers, 1969.
Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, Sherwin B. Nuland and Jack Riemer (eds.), Syracuse University Press, 2002.
Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Guide, Abner Weiss, Mesorah Publications, Limited, 2001.
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