Death is an inevitable lifecycle event. How we handle death indicates a great deal about how we approach life. As there is a Jewish way of life, there is a Jewish way of death.
The Jewish way of life implies a distinctive outlook based on very specific views of God and our place in society and in the universe. So, too, does the Jewish way of death imply singular attitudes toward God and nature, and toward the problem of good and evil. It also proffers a distinctive way of demonstrating specific Jewish qualities of reverence for mankind and respect for the dead.
For example, the prohibition of both cremation (the unnaturally speedy disposal of the dead), and embalming (the unnatural preservation of the dead), bespeak the philosophy of our relationship to God and nature. Repugnance to the mutilation of a body expresses the reverent notion that we were created in God’s image. The ban on necromancy is founded on precise theological concepts of creature and Creator. Likewise, the commandment to bury the dead without delay draws a very fine, but clear, line between reverence for the dead and worship of the dead. The profound insights implicit in the highly structured Jewish mourning observances speak eloquently of Judaism’s concern for the psychological integrity of the human personality.
What follows is a brief guide to Beth Tikvah’s end-of- life practices, as well as a more general guide to Jewish traditions surrounding death. Of course, all of this information and more is available by calling our Rabbi for personal guidance.
It has been said that one can measure how civilized a culture is by the way its dead are treated. Honouring our dead is considered chesed shel emet, the truest act of kindness, because it is done out of love with no hope of being repaid. Beth Tikvah’s Chevra Kadisha group seeks to fulfill that ideal. The anonymous volunteers provide the important service of making sure that Jewish individuals are properly prepared for burial and are properly attended to until interment.
Chevra Kadisha means “Sacred Society,” but it is more commonly translated as “Jewish Burial Society.” The tradition of having a Chevra Kadisha goes back more than 2,000 years. As Jewish communities formed throughout the world, a Chevra Kadisha was one of the first groups to be organized in each community. It was, and is, considered a great honour to be a member, and its work is considered nothing less than holy. Members are often called upon to serve with little or no notice, since they must spring into action promptly upon death.
The primary function of a Chevra Kadisha is the preparation and burial of the deceased in accordance with Jewish law (halachah) yet extends beyond the acts themselves. This holy work can be divided into two main parts:
* Shmira (maintaining a vigil so that the deceased’s body is never left alone); it is designed to comfort the neshama or soul before it ascends to heaven;
* Tahara (the preparation of a deceased’s body – involving washing and dressing by someone of the same gender); it is accompanied by prayers seeking forgiveness for the deceased and asking for eternal peace;
The Talmud (Sotah 14a) reminds us that our obligations in regard to the burial of the dead stems from God’s fulfilling this mitzvah on behalf of Moses. As well, in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a), we learn that attending the dead to burial yields a reward both in this world and in the world to come. The institution of the chevra kaddisha can be found in the Talmud (Moed Katan 27b) as towns people are derided for working while there was a person awaiting burial. They responded exclaiming that a local chevra kaddisha cares for the needs of the dead, permitting their work to continue.
From Talmudic times to the present, members of Chevra Kadisha in all its forms have reached out as volunteers to support individuals and families in the most difficult of times. This sacred and holy duty truly is an incredible act of kindness.
Shmira refers to the Jewish religious ritual of watching over the body of a deceased person from the time of death until burial. Shomrim are people who perform shmira. In Israel, shmira refers to all forms of guard duty, including military or security.
Historically, shmira was to prevent the desecration of the body prior to burial. In the Talmud, the purpose was to guard against rodents or scavengers. Today, shmira is practiced out of respect for the dead, and it serves as a comfort for the surviving loved ones.
According to Midrash (the interpretive tradition), the soul hovers over the body for three days after death. The human soul is somewhat lost and confused between death and burial, and it stays in the general vicinity of the deceased until the body is interred. Traditionally, the shomrim sit, meditate and read aloud comforting psalms and prayers. This serves as a comfort for both the transitioning spirit of the departed and to the shomrim themselves. They are prohibited from eating, drinking, or smoking out of respect for the dead, who can no longer do these things.
Performing shmira is considered a mitzvah. The Shulhan Aruch (the code of Jewish law) explains that while shmira is not a mitzvah in terms of a commandment, it was a minhag or custom, and customs of ancient Israel are considered Torah. Shomrim are allowed to be paid, and often are in other communities, but our Beth Tikvah Shomrim members serve purely as volunteers. The body may be covered or in a closed casket, but there should be someone present in the room at all times. In some cases, this may extend to the next room, provided that the door to the room of the deceased is open.
Kriah is a Hebrew word meaning “tearing.” It refers to the act of tearing one’s clothes or cutting a black ribbon worn on one’s clothes. This rending is a striking expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one.
Kriah is an ancient tradition. When our patriarch Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead, he tore his garments. Likewise, in II Samuel 1:11, we are told that King David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and ripped them upon hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan. Job, too, in grieving for his children, stood up and ripped his clothes.
Kriah is performed by the child, parent, spouse and sibling of the deceased. It is usually done before the funeral service begins. If a black ribbon is used, it is provided by the funeral director. Kriah is always performed standing. The act of standing shows strength at a time of grief. A cut is made on the left side of the clothing for parents – over the heart – and on the right side for all other relatives.
As the tear or cut is made, the family recites the following blessing:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam dayan ha’emet.
Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, Ruler of the Universe, the one True Judge.
The torn garment or ribbon is worn during the seven days of shiva (but not on Shabbat and festival days). Some people continue the practice for the 30-day period of mourning [sheloshim].
On the most basic level, the levayah (“accompaniment” or funeral procession), is a show of respect to the deceased. The Hebrew word levayah also indicates “joining” and “bonding.” Even as we mourn a soul’s departure from physical existence, we understand that what binds our souls – the fundamental Divine essence and connection to God – is far more powerful than the changes wrought by death. We and the deceased remain bonded – living souls all. By participating in the levayah we provide comfort to the soul as it undergoes the transition from the Olam Hazeh (this world) to the Olam HaBah (the world to come).
Meeting with clergy — after a death a call should be to the Beth Tikvah office. If it is after hours there will be instructions on the answering machine of who to contact. This person will help connect the rabbi and the chevra kaddisha as well as assisting with all of the funeral home and cemetery arrangements including identifying the burial plot. The rabbi will then set up a meeting with the bereaved to begin discussing arrangements. In accordance with the custom to have the funeral as quickly after death as possible, the rabbi will meet with the family that day or the next and schedule the funeral as soon as possible, typically the next day. Of course, we allow for extenuating circumstances, such as a close relative who is a long distance away. At the meeting with the rabbi, the funeral service will be reviewed and the family will share information about the deceased. This is an important part of the grieving process, as the discussion of the deceased’s life is often cathartic. This discussion also gives the clergy a chance to truly understand the life involved and his or her impact on others, so that a fitting hesped or eulogy can be prepared and more importantly, the family can begin a healthy grieving process.
The service — the funeral consists of an opening prayer, plus the recitation of psalms and readings that fit the life of the deceased and are comforting to the mourners. Following this, comes the opportunity to eulogize the deceased and pay proper tribute. This honour is offered to family members and loved ones in consultation with the rabbi.
Burial — if the service is graveside, it concludes with the actual burial of the deceased. If the service is in the funeral chapel, there is a procession to the cemetery. Dating to Biblical times, the preference for Jews has been earth burial. Having family and gathered friends participate in the burial is an important part of the grieving process. Not only does the visceral experience of placing earth on the casket provide a powerful sense of closure that helps with acceptance, it is also the greatest gift one can give their loved one – ensuring that their burial is done properly. We fill the grave until the casket is completely covered.
After the burial ceremony — up until the burial, mourners are supposed to be completely focused on taking care of the loved one who has passed. Therefore, the Kaddish prayer is not recited until after the casket has been lowered and the grave filled. Upon leaving the gravesite, it is traditional for those in attendance who are not mourners to form a shura (a double line facing each other), creating an aisle through which the mourners pass to receive words of comfort. Since Tradition teaches us that we don’t offer words of consolation to mourners until after the burial, this provides the first opportunity to express the traditional words of comfort, “May you be comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Any kind words of sympathy may be said to the mourners as they pass through the double line. There is an expression in Hebrew that translates, “Words from the heart go directly to the heart.”
Returning home — there are many customs, some based on superstition, that surround returning from the cemetery. Some that Jews observe are: covering the mirrors in the house of mourning; having a pitcher of water outside the house for those returning from the cemetery to wash their hands; and using a different route home from the cemetery. The rabbi is best able to guide you on which customs will be meaningful for you and to explain the reasons behind them. One of the oldest and most important Jewish traditions is that the community provides the first meal upon the family’s return to their home. Eggs, bagels and potatoes are traditionally served to symbolize the continuity of life. This meal of consolation, called the Seudat Hevra’ah, was begun in recognition that, if left to the mourners’ own wills, they might not eat. Another reason for the community to provide the first meal is to set the tone for the period of shiva. The mourners are not to be hosting a party, nor are they to be concerned with taking care of other people’s needs. Rather, the community is there to take care of them.
Shiva means seven, and is the period of mourning immediately following the burial. Tradition dictates that the day of burial counts as the first day of shiva, which continues for seven days. Although no public mourning is observed on Shabbat, the Sabbath counts in the seven days. Festivals and holidays can affect the observance of shiva. For example, in some cases, festivals cancel the observance of shiva completely, while in other circumstances festivals postpone the beginning of shiva. The rabbi is best qualified to explain how holidays may affect your observance.
During shiva, mourners remain at home and the Jewish community comes to comfort them. The only time a mourner is supposed to leave the home is on Shabbat to attend services in the synagogue. In our community, friends and relatives also help make a minyan (10 Jewish adults) for services in the home, so the immediate family may recite the Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). If the mourner would like to say Kaddish in the morning, it is also appropriate for he or she to leave the house and come to the synagogue for minyan.
The atmosphere in the house of mourning should be one of dignity, not that of a party. Talk should be centered around the deceased; it is a time to remember with fondness the events of the deceased’s life. While such talk may feel awkward, even distraught mourners find comfort in hearing stories about their loved one – rather than having people speak about other frivolous matters. Part of our uneasiness comes from not knowing what to say to a person in grief. But more often than not, it is our simple presence, not anything we might say, that brings solace to our grieving friends. A good practice is to listen to the mourners and let them lead the conversation.
The 30 days following shiva is called Sheloshim, which means thirty in Hebrew. The day of burial counts as the first day. As with shiva, some festivals affect the sheloshim period, and the rabbi will advise you on its status. Sheloshim serves as a period of re-entry into the world of the living for the mourner. This is the time when mourners return to work or school and begin to start living without their loved one. During sheloshim, mourners traditionally avoid music, gaiety and other forms of celebrations. The rabbi will help you with specific questions that may arise, such as what happens if a previously scheduled wedding or bar/bat mitzvah occurs during the sheloshim period.
The year of mourning
Judaism teaches that mourners should not show excessive grief and should avoid deifying the deceased. To this end, cemetery visitation should not be too frequent. Some authorities have said that the first time a mourner can return to the grave is after sheloshim, while others say a mourner may visit the grave at the conclusion of shiva. It is traditional that when one attends a burial, visiting the graves of others who are buried there is not done. This practice is out of respect to the person who is being buried, as well as to the person previously interred. Exceptions to this rule would be if the people have come from a far distance, or if to make another trip would cause undue hardship.
Unveiling the monument
Although there is nothing in traditional Judaism that requires an unveiling or dedication service, most families choose to have some sort of ceremony when the grave marker or headstone is put in place. We are required by tradition to mark the grave of a deceased, and the most common time for this to take place is close to the first yahrzeit (anniversary of the death). However, any time after sheloshim is acceptable. All headstones, or matzavot, at Beth Tikvah cemetery are uniform. The Beth Tikvah office and rabbi work with the family for the wording and the proper spelling of the Hebrew name and makes the arrangements with Newell Memorial. Furthermore, the rabbi can assist you in planning and preparing an unveiling ceremony.
Yizkor memorial service
Yizkor is said on Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot (the Biblical festivals) by every person who has lost a parent or other loved one. Some authorities hold that one does not say it in the first year following a death. It is the custom in many congregations for those not reciting Yizkor to leave the room during the Yizkor service, though this is not necessary. At Beth Tikvah, we believe it is better to remain present to support those who are in mourning and to remember lost friends and more distant relatives like grandparents. Yizkor begins with a series of verses recited responsively. These verses, beginning “Adonai, mah adam vatayda’ayhu” (“Hashem, what is man that you recognize him”), express the mortality of humans in comparison to God and relate a trust in God as the owner of our body and spirit.
The central prayers of Yizkor is a single paragraph beginning “Yizkor Elohim” (“may God remember”). Prayer books have individualized paragraphs to be recited for a deceased mother, father, male relative (including husband, son, brother, uncle and grandfather), female relative (including wife, daughter, sister, aunt and grandmother), extended family and martyrs. The first four of these paragraphs have a space in which to mention the name of the deceased. They all follow the same pattern: the prayers ask God to remember the soul of the deceased because the one reciting it pledges to give charity on the deceased’s behalf. As a reward for this charity, the person asks that the deceased’s soul be bound in the “Bond of Life” together with the souls of the forefathers and mothers and the other righteous people in the Garden of Eden.
After the individuals recite the Yizkor prayers quietly, the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) recites another prayer beginning “El malei rahamim” (“God, full of compassion”), which is similar in content to the Yizkor prayers. This prayer is said on behalf of all the deceased for whom Yizkor was said. This same prayer is recited at funerals and at the synagogue on the anniversary of a family member’s death.
The annual anniversary of the death of a person is called the yahrzeit and is traditionally observed based on the Hebrew calendar. Beth Tikvah sends a reminder in the mail a few weeks before the yahrzeit – along with minyan service times. The yahrzeit is observed by lighting a 24- hour yahrzeit candle the evening before the day of the yahrzeit, and most people come to morning or evening services to recite the Kaddish prayer and take a few moments of introspection. At Beth Tikvah, we recite the names of the deceased whose yahrzeit is being observed during Shabbat morning services. As well, on Tuesday mornings we provide an opportunity to recall memories of our loved one just before the Mourner’s Kaddish – ensuring our loved one’s memory is indeed bound up with the bonds of life. As with Yizkor, it is customary to make a small tzedakah donation to the synagogue in memory of the deceased.