Jewish burial

traditions & practices

INFORMATION FOR PLANNING A JEWISH BURIAL

personal burial wishes pdf

 

If you are coming to this page because a close family member has died and you are

responsible for all or part of the final arrangements, we say Baruch Dayan Emet.  This is translated HaShem, the true judge.  Death of a loved one is a difficult and confusing time.  But we bless HaShem for the good and what we see as bad, because everything HaShem does is for the good.  Therefore, even when it comes to death, we are taught to bless HaShem; we say, “Blessed is the True Judge,” acknowledging that this is beyond our understanding.

 

If you are making the final arrangements and want to follow Jewish burial traditions, we want to provide assistance and information that will help you plan and make decisions.  


BEFOREHAND

 

We encourage you to sit down with your families beforehand to discuss your final wishes.  At Sar Shalom, we have a final wishes form that we encourage those associated with Sar Shalom complete and provide a copy to be filed in the office of Sar Shalom.  Another copy can be given to the family member that may be responsible for carrying out your final wishes.  We also encourage you to consider making more formal arrangements with a funeral home and/or cemetery.

 

WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT

 

Viduy:  Viduy is translated confession.  If a person is aware that he/she is about to die, the Viduy prayers should be recited.  The short Viduy can be found in the Artscroll Siddur page 796. At the very last moment of death, if possible, all present including the person himself possible should recite the Sh’ma.  During the last minutes of a person’s life, no one should leave the room unless they are unable to control their emotions.  It is a matter of great respect to watch over a person as he passes from this world to the next. 

 

 

 

At Time of Death:  Everything that is done from this point until the burial, and even through the first week and perhaps throughout the first year, is based on the Jewish thought the soul continues after death.  Upon death, the soul returns to HaShem Who gave it.  The soul endures while the body returns to dust.  Many of the Jewish burial rituals are based on the belief that the soul, while outside the body, remains close and conscious for a period of time, and may be in distress at being separated from the body.    

 

Man is created in the image of HaShem, and although the pulse of life is no more, the human form must be respected for having once embodied the spirit of HaShem.  The manner of respect is governed by Jewish tradition rather than personal sentiments.  Everything that is done at this stage is to show respect to the body and to comfort the soul, with the idea that the soul is aware of what is done and said. 

 

In this light, closest relatives should close the eyes and mouth and draw a sheet over the face.  The body should not be touched except to retain honor (such as if the body is in an awkward position). There should be no eating or drinking in the presence of the body or loud talking and no derogatory remarks about the deceased.   If in a place where possible, light a candle near the head of the body.  This can be a meaningful time to ask the deceased for forgiveness for any harm caused the deceased during his lifetime. 

 

If you are in the Saginaw, TX area, immediately, contact Keturah Sistrunk @ 940-210-1962 or 469-438-5237  who will contact the Chevra Kadisha.  The Chevra Kadisha is a holy society of Sar Shalom members that will care for the body and make it ready for burial according to strict Jewish traditions.  If you are unable to reach Keturah immediately or live outside the Saginaw area, contact the funeral home you have chosen who is well versed in Jewish traditions.  Do this before allowing the hospital staff or anyone else to do anything to the body.  Ensure neither the hospital staff nor anyone else discards any clothes etc that contain blood or bodily fluids.  They should be saved in a bag and buried with the body.

 

NOTE:  Before purchasing a casket through the funeral home, contact Sar Shalom office for a local contact who builds these especially for Sar Shalom members.

 

 

FROM TIME OF DEATH UNTIL BURIAL

    

From the time of death until burial, the following must be done or decisions to be made. 

 

Shomer:  From the moment of death until burial, the deceased is never left alone.  A person called a shomer will sit with the body.  This can be a family member or a member of the community or a member of the Chevra Kadisha.  The shomer recites Psalms while guarding the body and should be reliable to never leave the body or fall asleep.  If you are in the Saginaw area, this service will be arranged by the Chevra Kadisha.

 

Autopsies/Organ Donation:  Autopsies, unless required by a law enforcement authority, are considered desecration of the body and are prohibited.  Organ donation is more complicated.  Contact Rabbi immediately before making any decisions regarding voluntary autopsy or organ donation.   

 

Embalming, etc. Embalming, pre-funeral cosmetic surgery, and cremation are all forbidden. Therefore, the burial must take place as soon as possible, preferably within 24-48 hours.  It may be delayed to buy a plot or obtain a shroud, but not for convenience of family members.

 

Planning the funeral/burial:  The mourner is exempt from all positive mitzvot requiring action (prayer, tefillin, etc.) until after the burial is completed.  A Jewish funeral includes:

  • Tahara – ritual mikvah performed by the Chevra Kadisha
  • Kria – tearing one’s garments
  • Kavod – accompanying the casket to the resting place
  • Burial – including recitation of Kaddish
  • Nechama – condolences

A Jewish funeral does not usually include:

  • Flowers – encourage others to give tzedekah in honor of the deceased
  • Open casket viewing – considered disrespectful to the deceased

 

Chevra Kadisha: The Chevra Kadisha is a holy society that cares for the deceased and prepares the body for burial.  It is considered one of the greatest mitzvot.

 

The main services of the Chevra Kadisha include:

  • Cleaning the body
  • Performing the tahara (similar to a mikvah) 
  • Dressing the body in plain white shrouds (and tallit if male)
  • Placing the body in the casket/aron – including anything containing bodily fluids or blood
    (NOTE:  Jewish tradition requires that only a plain wooden casket be used with no metal fasteners and no ornamentation other than a Star of David. Dirt from Israel may be placed in the casket with the body to symbolize being buried in Israel.)

 

Funeral/Burial – Kvura:  Once the Chevra Kadisha has completed their work, the funeral can be conducted.  Although the casket may be present at the funeral, it remains closed.  There are no fancy meals, wake, flowers, or music, generally.  The rabbi begins the service by reciting Psalms followed by the kriah. 

 

Kria:  Prior to burial, either before or during the funeral service or at the grave site, kriah is performed.  This is the tearing of an outer garment.  The modern innovation of using a ribbon worn on the clothing to act as the kriah is discouraged. 

 

Eulogy:  The eulogy is a one of the important obligations of the mourners.  The purpose of the eulogy is to (1) praise the deceased for his worthy qualities and (2) express grief at the loss of the person.  The eulogy is important because the soul is hearing the eulogy as well as the mourners. 

 

Prayers:  The order of prayers varies by community.  Psalms 23 is often recited and for women, Proverbs 31, Eyshet Chayil.  It is customary to recite Psalm 91 as one leaves a funeral. 

 

Washing:  Afterwards, everyone washes their hands ritually.  It is traditional not to dry the hands on a towel so that the memory of the deceased will linger. 

 

Escorting the dead:  At the conclusion of the funeral, mourners accompany the casket to the cemetery.  Escorting the dead to his final resting place is an extreme act of respect and even the study of Torah may be interrupted to do it.  The pall bearers carry the body to the grave site and family members follow closely behind.    

 

Burial:  The casket is lowered into the ground by pall bearers or others present, not funeral workers – with the head of the deceased towards the place where a headstone may be erected.  Those present take turns shoveling earth onto the casket – not passing the shovel one to another but laying down the shovel face down and the next person picks it up. 

 

If there is a minyan present the burial Kaddish is recited. The burial Kaddish is a prayer affirming that G-d, in His good time, will create the world anew, and the deceased will be raised to everlasting life. 

 

FOLLOWING THE FUNERAL

PHASES OF MOURNING

 

At this point, the rituals change from escorting the dead to comforting the living.   Mourners are comforted with the words:  May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. 

 

There are three main phases of mourning:

 

Shiva:  Shiva is the first 7 days following the funeral, mourners retire to the Shiva home where family will gather to observe Shiva and receive visitors.  This is the most restrictive period of mourning.  Kaddish may be recited.  A table/pitcher for hand washing is set up for mourners.  Mourners are served a private meal of recovery provided by friends and relatives. 

 

Ideally mourners do not leave the Shiva home for the seven days.  Mirrors and pictures of people are covered or turned around.  A seven day memorial candle may be lit in the Shiva home.  Low stools or cushions can be made available for mourners to sit on.  Simple refreshments may be set out for visitors. 

 

NOTE:  It is a great honor for the departed soul when others study Torah on his behalf.  Therefore it can be customary for volunteers to divide and study all the tractates of the Mishna, completing it by the thirtieth day after death/burial.

 

On the Shabbat that falls during Shiva, overt mourning is suspended and so mourners may wear leather shoes and sit on regular chairs and change clothing. 

 

At the end of the Shiva period, mourners change into regular clothing and may discard the garments involved in kriah.  Mourners may take a short walk to indicate the end of Shiva and to symbolizing assisting the soul on its journey.

 

Shloshim:  Shloshim is the time period Shiva and the end of the first thirty days and certain prohibitions are lifted.  At the end of thirty days, mourning for family members other than parents ends.  Mourning for parents continues for twelve months.  In the case of parents, Kaddish is recited for 11 months less one day. 

 

First Year:  The yartzeit is the anniversary of the death and in Judaism is a very significant time.  Mitzvah performed on this day bring great merit to the deceased.  Our sages teach that the soul of the deceased rises to a higher world.  Therefore, this is a day of rejoicing for the soul.  On this day mourning is officially completed.  Many visit the gravesite on this day.  Some place the headstone. 

 

If you have other questions or we at Sar Shalom can help you in any way during this difficult time, please call the office. May this story from the Midrash Rabbah, Shemot bring you comfort during this difficult time:

 

Once upon a time, a wise man went to the docks to watch as ships entered and left the port.  He noticed that, as one ship sailed out toward the open sea, all the people on the dock cheered and wished it well.  Meanwhile, another ship entered the port and docked.  But the crowd ignored it.  The wise man addressed the people saying “You are looking at things backwards.  When a vessel leaves, you do not know what lies ahead or what its end will be.  So there really is no reason to cheer.  But when a vessel enters the harbor and arrives safely home, that is something to make you feel joy.”

 

Life is that journey and we are the vessel.  When a child is born, we celebrate.  When a soul returns home, we mourn.  Yet if we viewed life on earth the way the wise man viewed the ship, perhaps we too could say, “The vessel has gone on its journey, it has weathered the storms of life, it has finally entered the harbor and now it is safely home.”  (Midrash, Shemot Rabbah)

 

It is our obligation to wish the soul well as it enters the harbor and arrives safely home.