Greater Lansing Chevra Kadisha
Timeline for Jewish Traditions
in Death and Mourning
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When a death is anticipated:
- A person who is very close to death is called a gosses. A gosses is still a member of the
community and is to be accorded full respect, provided with every comfort, and may be counted
for a minyan.
- It is forbidden to start mourning before the moment of death, or in any way to treat a dying
person as if they were already dead.
- Friends and family practice the mitzvah of bikkur cholim—visiting the sick.
- The rabbi and person on call for the Chevra Kadisha should be informed.
- The dying person may wish to recite the Viddui (confessional prayer) if s/he is able. This is a
more personal version of the prayer we recite on Yom Kippur, and ends with the shema.
Aninut—the period of time between the moment of death and the end of the funeral:
- When hearing the news of a death it is customary to say, "Baruch dyan ha-emet."—"Blessed is
the true judge." (Complete version: "Baruch atta Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, dyan ha-emet." Holy One of Blessing, Your Presence fills creation. You are indeed the Judge.)
- Jewish tradition does not advise restraint in expressing grief: "Bewail the dead. Hide not your
grief. Do not restrain your mourning" (Ben Sira).
- K'riah—rending of garments—may be done immediately upon hearing of the death of a dose
loved one, however, in modem practice this has become ritualized and is often performed
symbolically by cutting a piece of black ribbon attached to the mourner's garment just before the
- Autopsy is permitted if it is required by civil authorities or if it may help others, according to the
principle of p'knach nefesh (saving a life).
- Organ donation (matan chai'm—gift of life) is certainly permitted in accordance with p'knach nefesh, which is Judaism's highest mitzvah.
- Onenim—the term for the mourners during the period of aninut—prepare for the funeral and have no other responsibilities. They are exempt from all regular activities induding work, social
activities, and religious obligations. They are not counted for a minyan. Traditionally, they do
not eat meat, drink wine, or engage in sexual relations.
- Traditionally, an onen is any of the closest relatives: spouse, children, parents, and siblings.
- In Jewish tradition friends do not make condolence calls until after the funeral. ("Do not try to
comfort your friend while the body of his deceased lies before him," Pirke Avot 4:18.) Close
friends and Chevra Kadisha members, may, however, provide support to onenim as needed, e.g.
make phone calls to notify others of the death, cancel appointments, and make arrangements,
provide rides, organize food, and provide care for children.
- Traditionally a Jewish burial takes place within 24 hours of death because the Torah says, "You
shall bury him the same day....His body should not remain all night" (Deuteronomy 21:23). In
modern-day practice, this speed is rare outside of the Land of Israel except in Orthodox
communities, but the funeral should take place as soon as possible following the death. Burials
never take place on Shabbat or holidays.
- Life always takes precedence over death. If a funeral procession meets a wedding procession at a
crossroads, the wedding procession has the right of way.
- Jewish tradition abhors cremation. This is beginning to change in some communities.
- Jewish customs specify simplicity (in death we are all equal) and a natural return to the earth in
funeral and burial customs in accordance with the Torah: "You return to the soil, for from it you
were taken. For you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).
- no embalming
- washing and dressing in plain white shrouds
- a plain wood casket without metal or adornment
- closed casket
- a simple, brief, dignified funeral, which may consist of a service at the funeral home or cemetery chapel (optional), or a graveside service only
- no music
- no flowers
- Attending a funeral is an important mitzvah. The Hebrew word for funeral, levaydh, means
"accompanying." (Cohanim are exempt from mitzvot involving contact with the dead.)
- A Jewish funeral may be conducted by any Jew; the presence of clergy is not required.
- Jewish funerals are not traditionally held in the synagogue sanctuary because the presence of a
met/ah creates ritual defilement.
- At the end of the graveside service, the onenim say the mourner's Kaddish for the first time.
(Note: There is a special burial Kaddish with a slightly different wording for this occasion, but
the mourner's Kaddish is being used at graveside in our community.)
- It is customary for onenim to place a shovelful of earth into the grave, with all those attending
the funeral then taking a turn. It is a mitzvah to help bury the dead.
- Making a contribution to a charitable cause in honor of the deceased is very much appropriate
and in keeping with the principle of tikkun olam—healing the world.
Shiva—the seven-day period following the funeral:
- Mourners, who are now no longer onenim, but avelim, "sit shiva" for seven days.
- The seven-day shiva candle provided by the funeral home is lit upon returning home from the
- Immediately following the funeral it is traditional to go to the family home for the "meal of
condolence." Round foods (e.g. bread, lentils, hard boiled eggs), symbolic of the continuity of
life, are provided by the community, not the family.
- A pitcher and basin for ritual hand washing are provided outside the door of the home.
- This is the period of most intense mourning. Mourners are to focus on the work of grief.
Traditionally mourners do not concern themselves with physical adornment or personal comfort.
Mirrors are covered. Mourners sit on the floor and do not wear shoes. Men do not shave and
women do not wear makeup or jewelry or have their hair done. Bathing is done for cleanliness
- Mourners do not go to work, engage in social activities, or even do everyday tasks such as
paying bills and cleaning the house. The community cares for mourners during this time.
- The day of the funeral counts as the first day of shiva. A minyan is provided in our community in the house of mourning if requested so that mourners can say Kaddish daily during this period without leaving home.
- Visiting a house of mourning is an important mitzvah. Traditionally mourners do not rise to greet
visitors or thank them for coming. Visitors should follow the lead of mourners to see whether
they wish conversation or silence. Sharing fond memories of the deceased is an appropriate topic
- A house of mourning is a place to remember the deceased and comfort the mourner. It is not a
place for frivolous conversation or doing business with other visitors.
- On Shabbat, mourners go to synagogue and say Kaddish there. Shabbat counts as a full day of shiva, but public mourning is not observed in keeping with the commandments to celebrate the
joy of Shabbat. Avelim do not take an aliyah during shiva.
- On the morning of the seventh day, the shiva period ends. The mourner may go outside for a
walk as a way of symbolically rejoining the world after the period of intense mourning. In our
community some people observe shiva for a shorter period.
- The shiva period is cut short by certain major holidays (e.g. Pesach). Shiva is not resumed following the holiday.
Shloshim—the 30-day period of less intense mourning:
- Mourners return to work and normal responsibilities during this period.
- Mourners continue to say Kaddish.
- Mourners do not usually visit me cemetery during this time.
- Frivolity is still avoided, for example, not going to parties, concerts, or sporting events.
- Graveside visitation may be used to mark the end of shloshim.
- Like shiva, the period of shloshim may be cut short by a major holiday.
Shanah—a year's time:
- Only children (who have attained bar/bat mitzvah age) continue to recite Kaddish during the rest of the first year (normally eleven months, but according to local custom).
- Mourners may continue to avoid purely social events, according to how they feel.
- Positive commandments for the year of mourning include prayer, study, and tzedakah.
- Yizkor, the memorial prayer, occurs during services four times during every year—at Yom
Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. Yahrzeit candles may be kindled on the evening before
- American Jews often practice a ceremony of unveiling the headstone within the month before
the first anniversary of a death. Jewish gravestones are typically simple.
- Yahrzeit (year's time) is observed on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Traditionally
the date in the Hebrew calendar is used, but the secular date may be used, instead. A memorial
candle is lit at home which burns for 24 hours. The public yahrzeit observance consists of
reciting the mourner's Kaddish with a minyan.
- Tzedakah—righteous giving, is traditional on the anniversary of the death of a loved one.
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