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The Reality of Death | The Moment of Death | The Jewish Funeral | Mourning Rituals
Any discussion of the Jewish practices regarding death and mourning includes the primary objective of respect for the dead (kavod hamet). We are also obligated to comfort the mourners (nichum avaylim) and not leave the dying nor deceased alone. The Jewish practices from just prior to death until long after death are based on these two critical principles.
The Reality of Death
A basic tenet of Judaism is the emphasis on confronting the reality of death and accepting it as swiftly as possible. Honest recognition of death begins long before the actual death occurs. Awareness of our common end is built into Jewish philosophy and our texts.
Dealing with death is one part of a larger Jewish philosophy of life in which all persons are viewed with dignity and respect. Even after death, the body, which once held a human life, retains its sanctity. A dying person is referred to as a goses. As life begins to leave the sick, the concepts of respect and comfort continue. The dying individual must be treated as a living person and not as an object or as one to be avoided. Ideally, at no time should the dying be left alone. Visitors should be respectful of and focus on the goses and the situation. Idle chatter and eating should be avoided in the presence of the goses.
The Moment of Death
The actual moment of death is significant. It is considered a religious act to be present. According to Jewish tradition the dead body cannot be left alone. Ideally, a guard, shomer, remains with the body from the moment of death until the funeral and burial. During this period of time, called aninut, the bereaved are relieved of all religious obligations so that they can attend to the preparations for the funeral and burial.
The Jewish Funeral
It is helpful to know some of the following things in preparation for a Jewish funeral: Hebrew names and the names and relationship of family members; special requests; directions to the home where the first seven days of mourning, shiva, will be held; funeral, burial, and marker wishes; financial information, including safety deposit box details and the location of other documents, and wills; insurance data; social security number; veteran status; vital organ-donation arrangements; and any other requests. Many funeral homes, including Holman’s and RiverView, offer pre-planning services.
For those who are not well-versed in Jewish tradition, the death of a loved one can be a very confusing and upsetting time. In addition to the information contained in this website, we suggest that you contact local rabbis, who are a good source of local custom, minhag, and Jewish law.
A Jewish funeral is a sacred rite and should be invested with both dignity and simplicity, as taught by Jewish tradition. Jewish funerals avoid ostentation; family and visitors reflect in dress and deportment the solemnity of the occasion; flowers are inappropriate; embalming and viewing are avoided; and interment takes place as soon as possible after death.
The format of a Jewish funeral service is simple. It consists of a few essential prayers, selected readings, and a eulogy. The eulogy deserves special attention. Its origins go back to the late Biblical period, and it represents possibly the most public display of honor. While praise of the deceased is important, the eulogizer must present a balanced and realistic appraisal. In the past, when all family members lived nearby, funerals were held within twenty-four hours of death. Because of the realities of modern life, this is not always possible; however, the funeral should take place as quickly as is feasible. Traditionally, funeral services are held at the synagogue, the funeral home, or the graveside.
Mourners recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for the first time at the grave site after burial. Those individuals mourning parents recite the Kaddish daily for the 11 months following the burial. Traditionally, those individuals mourning close relatives (siblings, spouse, child) recite the Kaddish daily for 30 days following the burial; however, in modern practice, some choose to mourn these close relatives for a longer period of time with a daily or weekly recitation of the Kaddish. Additionally, some people choose to mourn other relatives by reciting the Kaddish for varying lengths of time. Surprisingly, the Mourner’s Kaddish does not deal with or mention death but speaks of the power and majesty of God. We recite the Kaddish to reaffirm our belief in God because, at the time of death or loss, we are most likely to deny the existence of God.
The laws of mourning apply specifically to: father, mother, brother, sister, child and spouse. Some rituals bring people together to comfort the mourners. Some promote acknowledgement and acceptance of the reality of death. One is proscribed from grieving too much and too long for the dead.
The first seven days after burial, shiva, is the period of intense mourning. Traditionally, mourners do not leave the home. They sit on low boxes (symbolic of feeling low and being uncomfortable) and mirrors in the home are covered (a way to avoid seeing one’s self and worrying “how one looks”). In the present day, many families modify these traditional practices to fit their situation. Some choose to sit shiva for three days. Some participate in a shiva minyan both in their place of residence and the community where the funeral was held. Friends and neighbors bring in food, and prayers are said daily in the home. Shiva may be truncated by some important holidays including Shabbat.
During the remainder of the thirty days following the burial, shloshim, the mourners return to work and start the “re-entry process” into daily life. Parties, concerts and other public entertainment are usually avoided.
A grave monument can be erected anytime but is usually dedicated after one year. Some families use this dedication, often referred to as an “unveiling,” as another opportunity to gather and remember their loved one. On each subsequent anniversary of the death, yahrzeit, a candle is lit in memory of the deceased, and the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited in the presence of a minyan. Kaddish is also recited at Yizkor services on Pesach, Shavuot, Shemini Atzeret and Yom Kippur. The grave is customarily visited on both the yahrzeit and prior to the High Holy Days.
After the funeral, the focus of Jewish mourning rituals should be to comfort and console the mourner, even if that comfort takes a form that is somewhat different from traditional observances. Judaism is constantly evolving and adapting ritual procedures.