Death and Mourning
While the preservation of life in Judaism is of paramount importance, taking precedence over nearly all other priorities and observances, death is not therefore abhorred or devalued. Instead, death is seen as a part of life and a part of God’s plan. The extensive mourning rituals in Judaism do not indicate a rejection or protest of death, but demonstrate the great value Judaism places on life in general and the life of each individual person.
Spiritually, the time of passing is when the soul of the deceased is returned to its Creator. This is a gradual process. The soul leaves the body in increments at the various stages of mourning (during the time of passing, shiva, shloshim and so on). The soul never completely departs the body. It is for this reason that it’s customary to visit the grave even after the passing.
Treatment of the Body
Upon the death of a Jew, the eyes are closed, the body is covered and laid on the floor, and candles are lit next to it. The body is never left alone as a sign of respect. Those who stay with the body are called shomerim (guards). Eating, drinking, or performing mitzvot are prohibited near the body, as such actions would mock the person who is no longer able to do such things.
In Jewish law, being in the presence of a dead body causes ritual uncleanness. Thus a kohein (member of the priestly family) may not be in the presence of a corpse, and those who have been must wash their hands before entering a home, whether or not they actually touched the body.
Most Jewish communities have a special group of volunteers, the chevra kaddisha (“holy society”) whose job is to care for the dead. This work holds great merit since those they serve can never repay them. They are responsible for washing the body and preparing it for burial in accordance with Jewish custom.
Dead bodies may not be cremated, and burial takes place as soon after death as possible. Embalming and the removal of organs are strictly prohibited, although there are rare allowances for organ donation under extenuating circumstances – a competent Orthodox rabbi should be consulted.
Open caskets are forbidden by Jewish law. Bodies are buried in a simple linen shroud, so that the poor will not receive less honour than the rich. The body is also wrapped in a tallit.
Coffins are not required, and are not used in Israel. If they are used, they are made of simple wood. A handful of earth from Israel is thrown in the casket with the body by the rabbi or a family member. These practices are intended to put the body in the closest contact with the earth as possible, and reflect the belief that the dead will rise in Israel in the messianic age.
The Jewish laws and customs of mourning for relatives who have passed away are specific and varied. A mourner should contact Rabbi Glasman (or the rabbi of the Orthodox Synagogue closest to them) as soon after the death occurs as possible, except if the death occurs on Shabbat or a Jewish festival, in which case the rabbi should be contacted at the conclusion of the Shabbat or festival.
Jewish law requires that tombstones be erected on all graves, so the dead will be remembered and the grave will not be desecrated. Jewish tombstones display the name of the deceased, date of death, and a short benediction. This information is normally written in Hebrew (and sometimes in Hebrew and English), and certain symbols indicating that the deceased is Jewish may also be present, such as a menorah, star of David, torah scroll, lion, or the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Some time after the passing of a relative, it is customary for the deceased’s family and friends to gather for the “Hakamat Hamatzeva”, or consecration.
Each year on the Jewish anniversary of the death of one’s loved one, a proper commemoration should take place. If you are not sure of the Hebrew date, please contact us for assistance.
Some customs that are appropriate for a Yartzeit memorial may include lighting a yartzeit candle at home in the evening prior to the day of the Yartzeit (according to Jewish law, the day begins with the preceding night), giving charity in memory of a loved one, studying Torah in their honour, arranging to recite Kaddish at the synagogue (if you are unable to recite the kaddish, it may be recited on your behalf – please contact us for assistance) and sponsoring a kiddush in the synagogue on the Shabbat that falls at the end of that week of the Yartzeit. Some also have the custom to fast from sunrise to sunset on the day of the Yartzeit.