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Traditional Jewish Burial & Mourning Practices

When a relative dies, the surviving relatives are faced with many important decisions. This information comes from a pamphlet written by the Conservative rabbis of Michigan to help guide our people through a difficult but highly meaningful process. This brochure takes a traditional approach, as always, please consult your rabbi with regards to burial practices.

Question: My relative is dying. How do I make end-of-life decisions?
Answer: Please contact your rabbi immediately. He or she can help you decide what course of treatment is appropriate from a Jewish perspective, and can also lead you with the appropriate final prayers. The Vidui (final confession) expresses our prayer that all sins will be forgiven, and our enduring faith in God's protection. The Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network is also an excellent resource for these situations. Once your loved one passes away, please contact one of our Jewish funeral homes and your clergy for assistance in planning the funeral. In some cases, prearrangements may be appropriate. If there is no Jewish funeral home in your region, contact your rabbi for a referral to an approved funeral home.

Question: How long can we wait for the funeral?
Answer: Jewish tradition teaches us to bury our dead as soon as possible out of respect for the dead. If relatives are out of town, or Shabbat or a holiday intervenes, a brief delay may be necessary. Please contact your rabbi.

Question: How is my relative's body prepared for burial?
Answer: The Jewish funeral home will come to the place where your loved one died, and will bring his or her body to their chapel for preparation. A Jewish attendant (Shomer) remains nearby, reciting Psalms on behalf of the deceased. All Jews must be ritually washed prior to burial. This process, called tohara, is done with the greatest respect by men for men and by women for women. The body is then clothed in simple white shrouds called tachrichin symbolizing the purity of the soul as it returns to God.

Question: How do I choose an appropriate casket?
Answer: Jewish tradition teaches us to choose a modest wood casket to bury our loved ones. There should be no metal parts, and the casket should not be made of expensive woods. All of our funeral homes have traditional caskets available for purchase.

Question: Should the casket be left open before the service for people to pay respects?
Answer: When the immediate family arrives before the funeral service, they may identify their relative. The casket should be closed before the public arrives, since our tradition considers it disrespectful to exhibit the body.

Question: Is cremation allowed?
Answer: Cremation is viewed by Judaism as a desecration of the body created in the image of God, and it is strictly prohibited by Jewish law. If a family cannot afford traditional burial, the funeral directors and clergy can offer assistance.

Question: What is the meaning of the black ribbon?
Answer: Before the funeral service, it is traditional to tear an outer garment, reflecting our torn heart, and say a blessing acknowledging God's justice. This ritual is called keriah (tearing). The black ribbon is often substituted for an actual garment.

Question: Should relatives be encouraged to speak at the memorial service?
Answer: This is a personal decision to be discussed by the family with their rabbi. Generally, the rabbi will interview the family in order to prepare an appropriate eulogy. Individuals who wish to share personal reflections should discuss this with the rabbi.

Question: What does the cantor (Hazzan) do?
Answer: The cantor (or Hazzan) chants Psalms and the memorial prayer, and helps assist the family with services and spiritual guidance.

Question: Who may serve as pall-bearers?
Answer: It is a great mitzvah to accompany the dead to their resting place. Pall bearers may be anyone but the immediate family (spouse, son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father of the deceased). Pall bearers should be strong enough to carry the casket; men should cover their heads.

Question: Is anyone not allowed into the cemetery?
Answer: Jewish law instructs Kohanim (members of the priestly tribe) not to enter a cemetery except for their immediate family. Parents should discuss bringing small children into the cemetery with their rabbi and funeral director. Pregnant women may certainly attend a funeral.

Question: What happens at the cemetery?
Answer: Once the family and friends have gathered, the casket is carried by pall-bearers to the grave. Practices vary depending on the Jewish date and the clergy. A burial prayer called tzidduk hadin (justification of judgement) is usually chanted, as is the memorial prayer El malei rachamim (Compassionate God). After the casket is lowered, the immediate family say the Kaddish. Family and friends are encouraged to place earth into the grave as a sign of respect.

Question: What is said to the mourners at the grave?
Answer: It is traditional for the mourners to walk between two lines of comforters as they step away from the grave. The comforters say Hamakom yinacheim etchem b'tokh sha'ar avelei itzion veyerushalayim, May God comfort you together with the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Question: What do we do after the burial?
Answer: Proceed directly to the home where shiva will be observed. Before entering the house, please ritually wash your hands at the door to distinguish the grave from the home. Mourners should allow others to care for them during this time of sorrow. Other relatives and friends should provide kosher meals for the grieving family. A special form of birkat hamazon (blessing after meals) follows shiva meals. It is also customary to cover mirrors, which are a sign of vanity in a shiva home.

Question: How long do we sit shiva?
Answer: The word "shiva" means seven. Unless a Jewish holiday truncates this period, shiva should be sat for a full week in honor of our deceased relatives, and for our own healthy grieving. During this time, mourners stay at the house, remembering their loved one, and receiving comfort from their family and friends. Religious services are scheduled, preferably around sunset so that afternoon and evening services can be conducted. Morning services can also be arranged in the home or at synagogue. Shiva services are not conducted on Shabbat or festival services at their synagogue.

Question: What happens at the end of shiva?
Answer: On the morning of the seventh day, the mourners rise up and walk around the block, indicating their return to the routines of life. All mourners continue to say the Kaddish prayers in synagogue for the first 30 days from the burial. This period is known as shloshim (30).

Question: How long do children say Kaddish?
Answer: Sons and daughters of the deceased should say the Kaddish for eleven Hebrew months from the burial. Your clergy can help you determine the final day of Kaddish.

Question: What other traditions are observed during the period of mourning?
Answer: During the thirty days (for a spouse, sibling or child) and during the first year (for a parent), we indicate our loss in a number of ways. We say Kaddish regularly; we avoid entertainment and excessive levity; many people do not wear new clothes; some men do not shave. The Hebrew calendar anniversary of the death (yahrzeit) is commemorated by lighting a special candle, saying Kaddish in the synagogue and by giving charity. We also say Kaddish during the Yizkor prayers on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavout.

Question: Does Judaism believe in an afterlife?
Answer: Judaism affirms that our souls return to God. This is expressed beautifully in familiar prayers such as the Amidah, Adon Olam and Yigdal. Heaven is known in Hebrew as Olam HaBa (the World to Come) or Gan Eden (the Garden on Eden) and is envisioned as a state of serenity and closeness to God.

Recommendations for Further Reading
There are many books which address these issues in more depth and detail. We recommend The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Rabbi Maurice Lamm, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort, by Ron Wolfson, and Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer. The Kaddish Minyan, edited by Rabbi Herbert Yoskowitz, takes a personal look at how saying Kaddish enriched the lives of ten people, and also provides a commentary on this prayer. There are also significant books that address Jewish beliefs on the afterlife. Rabbi Neil Gillman's The Death of Death gives an historical overview of these beliefs. Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz's Does the Soul Survive? addresses Jewish beliefs about reincarnation and past life regressions. Finally, the Psalms are an eternal source of solace for people of all backgrounds. Rabbis Samuel Chiel and Hnery Dreher's collection, For Thou art with Me is beautifully arranged.

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