“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19)”
Death is the common end of all. Jewish funerary practices are intended to ensure dignity for the deceased and to provide a pathway to consolation for the bereaved. Though many are patterned after Biblical precedents, others have evolved over the centuries. Their common denominator is the avoidance of ostentation and extravagance. In the democracy of death, the poor should not be shamed, nor should the rich compete with one another.
In accordance with the above Biblical citation, burial must be in the ground, in a specifically designated Jewish cemetery. Cremation is never permitted, and embalming greatly discouraged, absent compelling reasons. The funeral should be held as soon as practicable, while allowing sufficient time for family and friends to gather to pay last respects.
Till the funeral, those immediate relatives formally obligated to mourn – mother, father ,sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse – remain in a state of ‘aninut’. Their sole focus is to attend to the needs of the deceased and to prepare for the burial. As such, they are exempt from all other positive religious obligations. In modern times, many essential functions formerly performed by those ‘onenim’ are handled by professional undertakers. But others still devolve on them. Such arrangements include purchase of a burial plot, if not previously arranged, contacting the funeral home and congregational rabbi to set the date, time and place for the funeral, and preparing details of the deceased’s life for the obituary and eulogy.
Sometime between death and the funeral, an anonymous group of volunteers, a Chevra Kadisha (lit. Holy Society), with the utmost respect and gravity, will prepare the body for burial (‘Taharah’), washing and dressing it in a simple shroud (Tachrichim’). In Jewish tradition, this procedure is considered the ultimate expression of ‘Chesed shel Emes’ (selfless act of kindness). There are separate such societies for men and women.
Thus prepared, the body will be placed, often with some added earth from the Holy Land, in a plain, wholly wooden casket The body must not subsequently be left unattended, a ‘Shomer’ (watcher) always present nearby. It is considered meritorious for relatives to act in this capacity. Those doing so are expected to remain awake and act in a most respectful manner, encouraged, for example, to recite from the Book of Psalms.
The funeral is a simple, austere affair. The casket will remain closed; floral arrangements, and the like, are unwelcome. Just prior to the funeral, the mourners perform ‘keriah’, the cutting of an article of their clothing, as an expression of grief. The ceremony’s total focus is on the deceased, with the officiant’s eulogy centered lovingly, but honestly, about the highpoints and qualities of the life now extinguished. It is becoming frequent, as well, for family members to deliver additional remarks. One or more psalms will be recited and the ‘O God, full of compassion’ prayer chanted for the deceased:
“Grant perfect rest beneath the sheltering wings of Thy presence … unto the soul of [Hebrew name] …may [it] be bound up in the bonds of eternal life”.
With this, the funeral concludes. Flanked by pallbearers, accompanied by recital of verses of various psalms, the casket departs the premises for its final journey.
Another commendable act of kindness (‘Gemillat Chasadim’) is the accompaniment of the deceased to the grave (‘L’viat HaMeis’). Some of those not going to the cemetery will follow the end of the procession for a short distance, in partial fulfillment of that mitzvah. The cortege may take a circuitous route, so as to pass by the deceased’s home and/or congregation.
After arrival at the cemetery, the pallbearers, leading the procession, will carry the casket towards the grave, halting several times, usually seven, en route. Death is the great mystery of life, fully exposing its many vanities. Nowhere are such perplexities more deeply examined than in the Biblical book, Ecclesiastes, where ‘vanity’, either in the singular or plural, is mentioned seven times. Psalm 91, the Song of Moses’, with its assurance that, “For He will give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways”, is recited as the cortege proceeds to the gravesite. As the casket is lowered into the grave, the ‘Tzidduk Ha’Din’, a composite of verses in justification of the Divine decree of death, is recited:
“The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are judgment: A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is He” (Deut. 32:4 ) … “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away;
blessed be the Name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
It is most important that, minimally, the casket be completely covered with earth, ideally, weather permitting, that the grave be entirely filled in. Shovel(s) will be provided at the grave for attendees to participate in this mitzvah. The custom is not to pass the shovel(s) from person to person, but rather to put one down for another to pick up. There should be no chain of continuity in the tragedy of death.
The grave now filled, it is time for the mourners to recite the special burial Kaddish, an expression of faith and hope. Attention now shifts to their needs. As they leave the site, they pass through two rows of attendees, who offer consolation: “HaMakon yenachem et’chem b’toch she’ar avelei tzion v’Yerushalayim” (May the Lord comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem). Judaism is a religion of life, not death. On return to the house of mouring, there should be waiting a meal of condolence, prepared by neigbors and friends of the mourners. It is an occasion for demonstrating their concern and friendship for the mourners in time of grief. For them, this is an initial step back from the vale of death to the vale of the living.
There follows a seven day mourning period (‘Shiva’), providing an extended period wholly dedicated to grieving. During that time, mourners do not engage in business matters, sit on low stools, and pay minimal attention to personal hygiene and grooming. Men will not shave or have their hair cut. Leather shoes will not be worn indoors and marital relations are abstained from. It is customary to cover mirrors in the house. A seven day candle will remain lit throughout this period. Ideally, mourners will not leave the house, except on the Sabbath, when formal mourning practices are proscribed.
Friends will come, throughout these days, to express condolences and to participate in the regular order of morning and evening prayer services. When a minyan (quorum of ten men) is not available, mourners may go to a nearby synagogue for those services and to recite kaddish. Proper protocol for visitors is to remain silent, allowing the mourner(s) to speak first. “There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak (Eccl. 3:7)”. When words are inadequate to the situation, the presence of companionship is meant to suffice.
Formal mourning will continue through thirty days after burial (‘Shloshim’) for siblings, children or spouse. During that time, haircutting and shaving are proscribed, as is attendance at joyous gatherings. For parents, mourning will last for twelve months. During that time, a tombstone will be erected for the deceased, and an unveiling ceremony later held. Its inscription will provide, in English and Hebrew, name, dates of birth and death, and, often, a short descriptive Hebrew phrase, pertinent to the individual. At the ceremony, a cloth covering the inscription will be removed, There will be a brief eulogy, some psalms, and the ‘O God, full of Compassion’ (Ail Maale Rachamim) prayer will be recited.
Though mourning ultimately must cease, memory never does. In the years to come, the deceased will be remembered on the anniversary date of death (‘Yahrzeit’) with the recitation of kaddish, and on four holidays, Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles and Yom Kippur, when ‘Yizkor’ (May God remember the soul of …) is recited. Depending on distance, periodic, but not excessive, visitation to the gravesite is appropriate. As a token of such visitation, a small stone is customarily placed on the tombstone. And, as is the case with every cemetery visit, water should be poured over ones hands prior to returning home.
There is finality in death, but not an absolute end. The soul lives on. How it does so, freed from the bonds of physicality, is entirely a matter for sheer speculation. Suffice it to say, survival of the soul is a fundamental belief in Judaism and an almost universal historical human imagining. At some uncertain point, it is also believed, soul and flesh will again be united, as per Maimonides thirteen Principle of Faith: “I believe with complete faith that there will be a resuscitation of the dead whenever the wish emanates from the Creator, Blessed is His Name and exalted is His mention, forever and for all eternity”.
For further information, see ‘The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning’ by Rabbi Maurice Lamm.