Jewish Mourning Practices

From the Time of Death to the Funeral

Jewish law requires that burial take place as soon as possible. This is done as a sign of respect for the deceased.  It is also provides great psychological benefit to the family. In today’s world, however, brief delays are often necessary to allow family members to gather. The Sabbath and Jewish holidays may also necessitate delays. The clergy should be consulted in these cases.

The following are considerations that we bring to your attention.

Shmirah (watching the body): It is traditional Jewish practice to not leave the deceased alone (unguarded) from the moment of death until burial. Some Beth El congregants follow this practice. It includes the recitation of Psalms while watching the body.

Shomrim (guardians):  These may be relatives or personal friends of the deceased or members of the Congregation. There is also an area-wide Shomer service that will provide this service for a fee. Consult with the clergy or Chevra Kaddisha on this matter.

Autopsy/Organ Donation:   Autopsy is discouraged, for the sake of honoring the deceased, and should be performed only if required by the authorities.   Jewish law, contrary to popular opinion, permits organ donation under various conditions. The clergy should be consulted for the specifics of these matters.

Embalming: Embalming is contrary to Jewish practice and permitted only under unusual circumstances or where required by authorities. The latter is sometimes the case when death takes place out of the country.

Tahara (ritual cleansing):  Participation in tahara is a mitzvah of the highest order and is performed by members of the Chevra Kaddisha who are knowledgeable about traditional customs. Cleansing of the body and ritual washing are accompanied by the recitation of prayers. Women perform taharot on women, men on men. Close relatives of the deceased do not perform tahara. Only members of the Chevra Kaddisha are permitted to be in the room during tahara.

Tachrichim (burial garments): We are all considered equal before God, whether we were rich or poor in life. Therefore the tradition requires that all Jews be buried in the same type of garment. Burial clothes are simple, handmade white garments, signifying purity, simplicity and dignity. A Jewish male is customarily buried wearing a kippah and a tallit. A Jewish woman may also be buried wearing her tallit if desired.

Aron (casket):  This should be made entirely of wood without decoration or lining. A “plain pine box” is the traditional coffin. Of course there are several levels of “plain pine box.” Mourners are encouraged to aim for simplicity and modesty.  Earth from Israel is provided by the Chevra Kaddisha and placed within the coffin.

Flowers: These are not part of a Jewish burial. Sometimes they are sent by employers or others who are not aware of our tradition. They can be displayed in the shivah house or given to a nursing home but will not be used at the funeral service.  If someone asks about flowers, you may want to indicate that a contribution to a charitable cause in memory of the deceased is an appropriate and preferred way of expressing sympathy and respect. You may also wish to have available at the shivah some information about charities that were important to the deceased.

Cremation: Jewish law does not permitted cremation. If the deceased has insisted on cremation, the clergy will discuss with you the kinds of services that are still possible.

The Day of the Burial

Funeral services may be held in the synagogue, the funeral home, or at the graveside. This is one of the most important decisions to be made after a death takes place and should be made in consultation with family and the clergy.

Other customs and considerations for the day of the burial:

Kria (rending the garment): Next of kin participate in kria prior to the funeral service. The garment to be rent (torn) is an item of daily clothing or a ribbon affixed to the clothing. The torn garment or ribbon is worn either seven or thirty days, except on the Sabbath.

Pallbearers:  Pallbearers are chosen from among family and friends and accompany the casket and assist at the grave. This is an honor and a personal tribute to the deceased. Some lifting is required.

Viewing: Viewing the body is contrary to Jewish tradition’s emphasis on kibbud hamet (honoring the dead).

Kaddish: This prayer is recited for the first time after the burial. It should not be said if the family attends synagogue services between the death and burial.

Hand Washing: It is customary for those who go to the cemetery to wash their hands after leaving the cemetery. Some cemeteries provide washing bowls, more often it is necessary for these to be provided at the shiva house.

The Periods of Mourning

Shiva (the first seven days according to tradition):  Shiva is the period of intensive mourning observed by the immediate family of the deceased.  Shiva begins on the day of burial, not the day of death. The “official” mourners are: spouse, siblings, parents, and children of the deceased.  Those who have married into a relationship with the deceased are affected by the loss but are not obligated to perform the rituals of mourning.

The mirrors in a Shiva house are traditionally covered, and a seven-day memorial candle is kindled. Mourners sit on lower seats where possible. It is customary to arrange for a meal of condolence (which traditionally includes round foods such as eggs) to be served to the mourners and those who have accompanied and returned home with them from the cemetery. A pitcher of water and hand towels should be placed outside the door of the house for those who went to the cemetery to wash their hands before entering the house.  No blessing is recited.

Mourners are encouraged to participate in morning prayer services at synagogue and hold evening prayers in the Shiva house with the exception of Shabbat. Reciting Kaddish is one of the key parts of these services. Mourners may lead the prayer service in their home or request that the synagogue provide a leader.

While people will be coming to the shiva home, the mourners are not hosting the event.  It is the obligation of the community to support the mourners and thus it is customary to provide the mourners with food and assistance.  Friends and relatives should help supervise the preparation and/or ordering of necessary food and supplies. Beth El provides a platter at a time arranged with the family, either for the meal of condolence or later on in the Shiva period.  Many who come to the Shiva house will bring food with them.

During the Shiva period, mourners are urged to stay away from work or school in order to have time to contemplate the meaning of the cycle of life and the adjustments that will be required of them.

Public mourning observances are suspended on the Sabbath as the sanctity and serenity of this day supersede one’s personal grief. Mourners are encouraged to attend Sabbath services but are not given an Aliyah. Kria (the torn garment) is not displayed publicly. A major Holiday Festival terminates Shiva (consult the clergy for details.)

Shloshim (the first thirty days):  during the thirty days following burial (except during Shiva) mourners may return to work and normal activities but refrain from public entertainment or social activities. They are encouraged to attend services on a regular (daily)  basis and recite Kaddish.  The K’ria is worn by some during shloshim, while others cease doing so at the conclusion of the Shiva.

Shanah (the first year):  mourners for deceased parents continue to attend daily services to recite Kaddish for eleven months and continue to refrain from celebratory activities for a full year.

Yahrzeit (anniversary of death):  the Kaddish is recited each year on the anniversary of the death (not the burial).

Yizkor (memorial prayers): Yizkor prayers are recited on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot.