A brief overview

“…if there is no Jewish way of death, what Jewish way of life could there have been?” – Maurice Lamm –


A. Principles surrounding death & mourning

1. Kevod Ha-met: the respectful treatment of the dead
2. Kevod He-chai: consideration for the feelings of the mourners
3. Jewish tradition requires that the dead are provided the same respect as that due a living person. All the instructions left by the deceased are to be honored so long as they do not contravene Jewish law.
4. Judaism encourages grieving openly and publicly because expressing ones emotions helps the mourner struggle through the discomfort.
5. Performing any kind of work on Shabbat is prohibited thus care for the deceased, mourning practices, and funerals are restricted on Shabbat.
6. Jewish tradition encourages a full range of participation by family and friends with regards to care and respect for the deceased, participation with the burial, and attention to the mourners. Thus, family and friends are encouraged to the highest degree to participate in one, many, or all of the following mitzvot (commandments) of our tradition:
a. Bikur Cholim: The mitzvah of visiting the sick
b. Shmirah: The mitzvah of not leaving the deceased alone
c. Taharah: Purification: The mitzvah of assisting in the preparation of the deceased for burial. (Participation by near kin is not required and discouraged due to emotional well being.)
d. Accompanying the deceased: The mitzvah of carrying the casket or accompanying the casket
e. Hesped: Eulogizing: The mitzvah of publicly expressing ones feelings about the deceased
f. Burial: The mitzvah of placing earth into the grave
g. Assisting the house of mourning: The mitzvah of arranging, preparing, or serving the Shivah meals or assisting the Shivah house
h. Being There: The mitzvah of visiting the bereaved.


B. Chevra Kadisha: Holy Society

1. The Jewish Mourners Book of Why states the following: “Preparing the deceased for burial in a dignified manner is of the highest priority in Judaism.” P.28
2. Maurice Lamm states in his book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning “The Taharah… is not merely ‘an old custom,’ or a ‘nice tradition,’ but is an absolute requirement of Jewish law.”
3. A Chevra Kadisha is a group of Jewish individuals within a local Jewish community who volunteer their time and effort on short notice to honorably and respectfully pray for, wash, dress, and casket the deceased. Men care for men and women care for women.
4. The body is washed prior to burial because it must leave this world as it entered, thus returning to God in a state of purity.
5. Taharah: Purification: The Taharah is the washing or cleansing of the body. Twenty four quarts of water are poured continuously over the deceased such that a stream flows over it from head to toe; the finger and toe nails are cleaned and in some cases the hair is washed.


C. Taharah: Purification

The ritual washing, Taharah, is performed by the Chevra Kadisha, holy society, volunteers of the Jewish community. It is important to understand that the Taharah is one of the most significant aspects of care and respect for our dead. It is absolutely the most respectful and caring way of preparing our dead for burial. It is a most wonderful concept when Jewish volunteers from our local community come together at the funeral home and with care and dignity, gently wash and dress our loved ones. It is not just a tradition from our past, it is the only way that Jews can assure that our Jewish dead are cared for in the most revered manner by other Jews.


D. Tachrichim: Shroud: Burial Garments: Wrappings

1. The deceased is dressed in an all white hand made shroud made of linen, cotton, or muslin.
2. The white shroud symbolizes purity and contains no pockets such that no worldly possessions are buried with the deceased.
3. The tallis worn during an individuals lifetime is appropriately wrapped around the deceased for burial.
4. The tradition of dressing our dead in the tachrichim reminds us that each person whether rich or poor is equal in the eyes of God.


E. All Wood Casket: Aron

1. Jewish tradition emphasizes simplicity in burial. It is customary to use a very simple plain pine all wood casket.
2. The all wood casket should contain no metal. Metal decomposes much more slowly.
3. The simple plain pine casket will naturally become part of the earth.


F. Shomer: Watcher or Guardian

1. It is appropriate to designate one or more Jewish individuals to stay in the presence of the deceased from the time of death until burial.
2. Family members and friends of the family may participate.
3. It is appropriate to engage individuals to stay with the deceased in lieu of family and friends.


G. “…You shall certainly bury him [the same] day.” (Deuteronmy 21:23)

1. It is proper to bury before the next sun-fall if time permits.
2. It is proper to leave the body unburied overnight to allow family members to arrive or to inform people of the death.


H. Keriah: Tearing

In the Torah we learn that Jacob tears his clothes after seeing Joseph’s torn, blood wrenched coat of many colors. Jewish tradition encourages expressing public grief; It is appropriate to tear a garment around the chest area, while standing (symbolizing strength during crisis), as soon as we learn of the death of a near kin. A tear is made on the left side, over the heart, when grieving the loss of a parent, and on the right side for others. The torn garment is worn publicly during shivah but not during Shabbat.


I. Cemetery: Bet Kevarot: House of Graves

1. Accompanying and Carrying the Casket: The casket is carried from the hearse to the grave while psalm 91 is recited. It is appropriate to follow behind the deceased to the grave.
2. Stopping: It is customary to stop seven times (some stop three times) as the deceased is accompanied to the grave. Stopping while approaching the grave represents an expression of hesitation and reluctance to depart from the deceased.
3. Placing Earth in the Grave: We are commanded to take the responsibility in caring for and burying our dead. Thus, it is appropriate to participate in placing earth into the grave. It is customary to cover the casket completely with earth immediately after it is lowered into the ground. Covering the casket with earth emphasizes the finalization of death and is part of accepting the death.
4. Shovel: It is traditional to use the backside of the shovel for the first few placements so that we may distinguish between ordinary shoveling and burying a loved one. The shovel is not to be passed from one person to the other as we do not wish to pass sorrow from one person to the other, thus, the shovel should be placed back into the mound of earth for the next person to take.
5. Kaddish is traditionally recited by the immediate mourners after the deceased is actually buried. The Kaddish is recited every day for eleven months for a parent and 30 days for other relatives; it is read for a parent, child, sibling, and spouse and a minyan is required.
6. Two Lines: At the conclusion of the graveside service, those in attendance are asked to form two lines of which the immediate mourners will walk through leaving the grave and approaching their vehicles. As the mourners pass through the following is said: “Hamakon Yenachem etchem betoch she’ar avelei tziyon verushalayim.” – “May God comfort you among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.” This creates an avenue for which the mourners are respectfully consoled and is an appropriate conclusion as the mourners are surrounded with friends.
7. Washing Hands: Immediately after leaving the cemetery ground we rinse our hands with water. This is meant to remove the uncleanness of the cemetery.


J. Mourning

1. Shivah
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary describes the benefits of shivah from his commentary in Torah Gems, 11/29/97, p.4: “… the structure [shivah] imposes on our shattered lives helps keep chaos at bay. To pray and recite Kaddish thrice daily in the midst of a caring community restores a semblance of order and begins to fill the void with warmth, if not meaning. Second, the ritual gives us a language to express our pain and despair. The ancient words and acts become vessels designed especially for us to articulate the feelings that assault us. Finally, the unending flow of family and friends creates a unique opportunity to collect our disparate memories of the loved one we have lost and to compose a portrait for the years to come. Memory bridges the abyss. At the end of it all we are not wiser, but stronger, resigned to live purposefully in our ignorance.”
Shivah Candle: The seven day candle is lit at the location where shivah will take place. It is lit immediately following the burial
Shivah Meal: This meal of condolence is prepared by friends to allow the mourners to eat following the burial. The meal should at least contain a hard boiled egg (symbolizing life and renewal).
2. Shloshim – the thirty day period of mourning which includes the seven days of Shivah.
3. 11 Months – Kaddish is read daily for 11 months following the death of a parent.
4. Yahrtzeit – anniversary of the death.


K. Kaddish

While the Kaddish is recited in memory of the departed, it contains no reference to death. Rather is it an avowal made in the midst of our sorrow, that God is just, though we do not always comprehend His ways. When death seems to overwhelm us, negating life, the Kaddish renews our faith in the worthwhileness of life. Through the Kaddish, we publicly manifest our desire and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which our parent had in their life-time. Continuing the chain of tradition in God’s love and justice, and pray that He will speed the day when His kingdom shall finally be established and His peace pervade the world. (from the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, Rabbinical Assembly of America, United Synagogue of America, p. 38.)

L. Not Traditional

1. Cremation
2. Embalming
3. Above ground entombment
4. Flowers
5. Viewing

“Judaism is a faith that embraces all of life; and death is a part of life. As this faith leads us through moments of joy, so does it guide us through the terrible moments of grief, holding us firm through the complex emotions of mourning, and bidding us turn our gaze from the night of darkness to the daylight of life.” -Maurice Lamm –

Excerpted from The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Maurice Lamm, Jonathan David Publishers, 2000