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Jewish Mourning Traditions
The Jewish way of mourning expresses reverence for humankind and respect for the dead. Jewish customs provide concrete ways to work out grief while demonstrating ones respect and love for the deceased. It is never easy to mourn someone whose life touched others in a meaningful, loving, well intentioned way, but Jewish laws of mourning can comfort and ease the pain and help one to reach acceptance over time.
FROM DEATH TO BURIAL...
When death is imminent, many Jews observe the custom that the dying person recite the Viddui, the confession (a plea for forgiveness), followed by the Shema, and affirmation of the unity of life. The purpose of seeking forgiveness is rooted in effecting closure, to bring our life into focus and to let it go in peace. The Shema affirms the unity of all being as part of a greater whole. It is opening oneself to the Source out of which we are born and to which we return at death.
WHAT IS THE FIRST THING TO DO WHEN A DEATH OCCURS?
The family needs to notify the Jewish funeral home and their rabbi immediately to make funeral and burial arrangements. A traditional Jewish burial requires the service of the Cherva Kadisha (Holy Society) to wash and dress the deceased in the traditional funeral shroud with appropriate prayers. A Shomer should stay at the side of the deceased saying psalms (tehillin) until the funeral service begins.
WHEN SHOULD THE FUNERAL TAKE PLACE?
Normally Jewish custom is to hold the burial within 24 hours of death unless that time will fall on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, or the first or last days of a Jewish festival, or if time is needed for family members or special friends from distant places to arrive. The idea of swift burial is designed to alleviate stress upon the family awaiting closure.
WHERE SHALL THE FUNERAL TAKE PLACE?
It is customary to hold a Jewish funeral at a Jewish funeral home, at the residence, at the synagogue, or other appropriate location that best fits the family's wishes. It is also proper to hold the entire service graveside.
WHO NEEDS TO BE NOTIFIED OF THE DEATH?
The family needs to make a list of immediate family members, close friends, and appropriate business associates and peers who need to be contacted about the death and the funeral plans. Once made, family and friends can divide up the calling list to make sure all are contacted.
WHICH CEMETERY?
The funeral home and rabbi can assist in this decision if predeath arrangements were not in place. Remember to ask the requirements of the cemetery to make a correct decision for your family.
WHICH CASKET?
Jewish tradition prescribes a casket made out of plain wood, which is simple and contains no metal fastenings. Liberal Jews can make their selection out of a variety of woods, metals and other materials to suit the family's wishes.
IS A VAULT (OUTER BURIAL CONTAINER) NEEDED?
Some cemeteries require a vault to maintain the contour of the terrain. Your funeral director or the cemetery you plan to use will properly advise your family on this matter.
WHAT TRIBUTES ARE IN ORDER?
Well-wishers often make a donation (give Tzedaka) to a worthy cause in the name of the deceased. The funeral home identifies the family's charity preference in the obituary.
WHAT IS THE REASON FOR KERIAH?
Keriah is the cutting and tearing or rending of the garments by the immediate family members (son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister and spouse) prior to the funeral service. Keriah is symbolic of how the death of a loved one tears the fabric of our lives and nothing can repair the loss. The clothes (or symbolic ribbon) that has been ritually cut and then torn are worn for either 7 days of Shivah or the 30 days of Sheloshim.
Keriah is made on the left for parents and children of the deceased, and on the right for spouse and siblings. The person stands to perform Keriah; it should take place at the moment of hearing of the deaths, or just prior to the funeral service (most common today), or at the cemetery, prior to interment.
WHAT IS APPROPRIATE AT THE FUNERAL SERVICE?
The funeral service is a brief and simple service designed primarily for the honor and dignity of the deceased. The family derives comfort and consolation from the service and from those who attend.
The service usually consists of a selection from the Psalm, a eulogy, and memorial prayers. Pslam 23 is most commonly used at Jewish funerals.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE EULOGY?
As a significant focus of the funeral service, it is appropriate for the mourners and their heirs to see that the eulogy is fitting and appropriate to the honor and dignity of the deceased. There are two important areas to cover in an eulogy. First, the deceased is to be praised for his worthy qualities. Secondly, the eulogy should express the grief and sense of loss of the mourners and the entire Jewish community. Usually, the rabbi will create and deliver the eulogy based upon information provided by the family.
WHO SHOULD ESCORT THE DECEASED TO THE CEMETERY?
It is appropriate for all who attend the funeral service to escort the deceased to the cemetery. The sages considered the preparing and escorting the deceased to his/her final resting place as an extremely important symbol of respect.
IS THERE A PRESCRIBED WAY FOR THE PALLBEARERS TO CARRY THE CASKET?
It is an honor to serve as a pallbearer and carry the casket to the grave site and deposit it in the grave. It is customary for 7 pauses to be made from the hearse to the gravesite. The significance of the pauses is to indicate our unwillingness to end the service. The 7 pauses have its roots in the Midrash. With each pause, the fact of ultimate death teaches us to avoid the life of vanity, to be creative and kind, to repent of evil, to walk in the path of goodness. The casket, carried by the pallbearers, precedes the funeral party to the grave. Only the rabbi may precede the casket to indicate where and when to pause. It is customary that Psalm 91 is read as the procession moves to the gravesite.
WHAT IS CUSTOMARY AT THE GRAVESITE?
The sacred principle of the Jewish burial law requires lowering the casket to the bottom of the grave. At the very minimum, the casket must be fully covered with earth to take the form of a grave.
IS THERE A PROPER WAY TO COVER THE CASKET WITH EARTH?
It is an honor and duty to help in shoveling the earth to cover the casket. It is considered a personal goodbye, albeit a heartfelt and emotional task. The earth originally dug out of the grave should be used to cover the casket. The shovel should NOT be passed from one person to another, but should be placed back in the pile of dirt between shoveler's. This is done as a silent hope that the tragedy of death is not "contagious" and that the remainder of the family and friends may live long and peaceful lives. There are no rules about how many shovelsful to use. Some Jewish people use the back of the shovel to indicate a difference from its normal use.
IS THE KADDISH RECITED AT GRAVESIDE?
The Kaddish is recited so long as there is a minyan present at graveside. A minyan is at least 10 Jewish males for Traditional Jews, and 10 Jewish people for Liberal Jews. The Kaddish is a holy pledge, an expression of continued faith and a final tribute to the deceased.
IS THERE A PROPER WAY TO LEAVE A JEWISH CEMETERY?
Those present form two parallel lines facing each other. The mourners solemnly pass through the lines and are offered words of comfort, e.g. "May the Lord comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem".
WHY DO WE WASH OUR HANDS AFTER THE FUNERAL AT THE CEMETERY AND LATER AT THE MOURNER'S HOUSE?
This is a symbolic, ancient custom of purification, performed after contact with the dead. It's intended to turn the attention back to the living and the value and dignity of life. It is appropriate to pour water over each hand, alternately, from a cup or pitcher. As with the shovel, the cup is NOT PASSED from hand to hand, but put down between each person.
IS THERE PROPER ETIQUETTE TO FOLLOW AT THE CEMETERY?
The holiness of the cemetery is equivalent to the holiness of the sanctuary. Therefore, our actions must reflect our regard and reverence of this holiness. Eating and drinking is prohibited at the cemetery, even for unveilings. Frivolity is inappropriate at an unveiling ceremony and of course, at a funeral service. One may not step over or sit on the gravestone which directly covers a grave. One may sit on seats near the graves or on roadside railings and gates.
AFTER THE FUNERAL, FOR THE NEXT 30 DAYS...
The first seven days after burial, the Shivah period, is the formal mourning period for the immediate family of the deceased. After the first seven days, the mourners return to work and some of their daily activities while observing the customs of the first 30 day period, the Sheloshim period. It is customary to observe the Shivah in the home of the deceased. Most importantly, is that the family should be together during this period. Upon returning from the cemetery, after washing the hands, a member of the immediate family lights a Shivah candle that burns for seven days, it is a mark of respect in memory of the deceased. All mirrors are covered and the immediate family members sit on low stools or boxes and wear soft-soled slippers, or rubber or canvas shoes. It is customary for friends and non-immediate family members to arrange that a Meal of Condolence be ready and waiting upon return from the cemetery. Daily during the Shivah period, it is a sacred obligation to conduct services each morning and each evening in the house of the deceased to honor the deceased and to show respect for the bereaved. It is important to have a minyan present so that Kaddish may be recited. At the end of Shivah, some Jewish people observe a custom of walking out of the house and around the block. This is symbolic of escorting the soul of the deceased out of the house and allowing it to ascend heavenward at last.
WHAT IS APPROPRIATE IN MAKING CONDOLENCE CALLS?
Prior to the funeral, it is not appropriate to visit the bereaved. After the funeral, it is appropriate to visit and bring food, primarily. In fact, it is an act of great caring to free the family from everyday concerns during the Shivah period. Upon visiting, it is customary to let the mourners speak first. Once acknowledged, all that is necessary is to say, "I'm sorry". Shivah is a period for reminiscing, so often all that is necessary is to listen to the mourners and their memories and thoughts they wish to share. It is time for listening and comforting the bereaved. Usually a Shivah visit lasts thirty to forty-five minutes. If one wishes to do more than bring food to the house, then it is appropriate to make a contribution to the deceased's favorite charity or to the synagogue fund established in his or her memory. A particularly meaningful gesture for many Jews is to have a tree planted in Israel by Jewish National Fund in honor of the deceased.
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE LEAVE PEBBLES ON THE HEADSTONE?
In biblical times, graves were marked by a pile of stones, and it may be that the modern day custom has grown out of the biblical times. Today, pebbles serve as a visible sign that family members have come to visit and that they remember.