A Guide for Mourners
Prepared by Rabbi Howard R. Buechler
Judaism can enrich our lives in times of sadness as well as in times of joy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Jewish approach to death and mourning. Imbued with psychological insight, Judaism provides mourners with a unique source of guidance and emotional support. It is our prayer that this guide will reveal the wisdom and beauty of Jewish tradition and Conservative Judaism’s commitment to that tradition. This Guide contains HALAKHOT and MINHAGIM (“Laws” and “Customs”) developed to bring honor to the deceased and comfort to the bereaved. Discuss with Rabbi Buechler any questions you may have that are raised by this booklet. Rabbi Buechler can guide, instruct, and counsel during this most difficult time and the healing wisdom of Judaism will profoundly help you. May God bring comfort to all who mourn and grieve.
Before the Funeral
A mourner (in the Halakhic sense) is one who has lost a parent, spouse, sibling, or child. The formal period of mourning begins after burial. From the time of the death until the burial, the mourner is called an ONEN. The primary obligation of the Onen is to make all the necessary funeral arrangements. At the same time, pleasures, such as drinking wine, eating meat, and conjugal relations, are avoided. Please call Rabbi
Buechler before setting times or making final arrangements for the funeral service.
Respect for the Dead
Our care for a body after death reflects our devotion to a person in life, and our reverence for God who gave that life. The dead are not to be left unattended. Thus, Jewish funeral directors should be asked to provide a SHOMER (“guard”) who will stay with the body until the funeral, reciting Psalms. The Jewish funeral director should also be asked to arrange for TAHARAH (“purification”). During Taharah the body is respectfully cleansed by a HEVRAH KADISHAH (“burial society”).
The deceased should be dressed in TAKHIRIKHIM (“burial garments”), rather than in regular clothes. Our Rabbis taught that rich and poor alike are dressed in the same simple white garments, for death we are all equal before God. One should be buried with the TALLIT “prayer shawl”) worn during one’s lifetime, after one of the TZITZIT (“fringes”) has been cut.
Judaism teaches that a body should return naturally to the elements of the earth from which it was created. Autopsy is prohibited unless it will help save a life or is required by the civil authorities. Embalming, which is rarely required by civil authorities, is forbidden by Jewish law. Cremation is also prohibited as our bodies are sacred in life and after life as well. Honor, love and respect is to bury a loved one properly and not to cremate.
The casket must be wooden and simple. Displaying the body is contrary to Jewish law. “Visitation” prior to the day of the funeral is foreign to Jewish practice. The burial must take place as soon as possible. Where delay is unavoidable it should be kept to a minimum.
It is also a Mitzvah, a positive precept, to donate organs and tissue at the end of one’s life. There is no greater kavod ha-met (honor to the deceased) than to bring healing to the living. Organ donations do not delay funeral arrangements and are fully in accordance with Jewish Law. Organ donor cards are available from Rabbi Buechler.
Just before the funeral service, the Rabbi leads the immediate mourners in performing KRIAH (“tearing”), and in reciting the blessing that proclaims God as “the Righteous Judge.” A tear is made in the clothing. This serves as a sign of mourning. For a parent the tear is made on the left side, over the heart; for others it is made on the right side (of a jacket, shirt, sweater, or tie). Many people today cut a black ribbon which has been pinned to the clothes. The ribbon is not worn on Shabbat. After the seven days of mourning (Shiva), the ribbon is worn unobtrusively until the end of the thirty days of mourning.
The simple service consists of readings (especially from the Psalms), a HESPED (“eulogy”), and the EL MALE! RAHAMIM prayer. Flowers and instrumental music are inappropriate.
The deceased is to be buried in the ground, fulfilling the Biblical teaching, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Thus, the casket is
wooden. Cremation, mausoleum interment, and sealed burial vaults are forbidden. At graveside prayers are recited that remind us that God gives life and receives it back. Although God’s ways are often incomprehensible to us, we believe that there is meaning and purpose in all that God does. We bury a human body but we never bury love and the memories we seek to retain. Accompanying the dead to their final resting place and participating personally in the burial are great Mitzvot. Those present are encouraged to place earth into the grave, as an expression of farewell and honor. After the burial, family and friends form parallel rows. As the mourners walk between the rows, our first words of consolation are offered. After leaving the cemetery it is traditional to rinse our hands. A pitcher of water is placed outside the Shiva
home door for this purpose.
Stages of Mourning
The Jewish approach temporarily removes mourners from the every day world, allows them to come to terms with the loss, and then gradually brings them back to normalcy. Always recognize that the loss ends a life – yet our lives continue to embraced by fond memories. The first stage of Jewish mourning is called ANINUT. It is from the time of death until burial. This stage allows the Onen to arrange for the funeral.
Following the burial is SHIVAH. During Shiva mourners remain home, away from business and other concerns. It is a time for contemplation, a time for remembering, a time for grieving and coping with the finality of death and the ultimate significance of life.
SHLOSHIM (“30 days”) is the stage observed after Shiva. Mourners leave home, go back to work and re-enter the world of normal living. Joyous events or entertainment, however, are avoided. Shloshim is a transition stage; we have returned to the world, but daily we are reminded of our loss. Sheloshim is the thirtieth day after burial. For the death of a parent, the period of mourning continues for a year. It is true that we probably never fully recover from the loss of a close relative. But we must continue living our lives. Observing Jewish tradition helps us to do this, stage by stage.
Shiva means “seven,” and refers to the seven-day mourning period that begins with burial. The day of burial counts as the first day of Shiva. Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day.
Mourners may observe Shiva in any home, preferably at the home where the deceased lived. A candle, provided by the Jewish funeral director, is kindled upon returning from the cemetery. No BERAKHAH (“blessing”) is recited. The flame may symbolize the human soul. Mirrors, symbols of vanity, as well as distraction during services, are covered during Shiva in public areas of the home.
The first meal eaten by the mourners during Shiva is called SE’UDAT HAVRA’AH (“meal of consolation”). We must eat to live. Mourners are thus taught that life goes on, and that by eating, they are taking the first steps in coping with death. Friends should prepare this meal, consisting of at least bread and a hard-boiled egg (according to some, a symbol of life). Or for Sefordim – chick peas that image the cycle
During Shiva, certain restrictions are observed. Mourners do not use cosmetics, shave or cut the hair. Wearing of leather shoes, engaging in conjugal relations, listening to music, or watching television, are considered pleasures, and are thus inappropriate during the week of mourning.
Our synagogue as well as Jewish funeral directors provide boxes or benches for mourners, who sit on them as a sign to others of mourning and sorrow. If services are not held at the Shiva home, mourners may leave home to attend synagogue services. Kaddish is recited at each service. Shabbat during or at the conclusion of Shiva is to be observed in the traditional manner. On Shabbat neither torn clothing nor the ribbon is worn. Mourners go to the synagogue for Shabbat services. On Friday evening, after the prayer L’KHA DODI, the Rabbi leads the congregation in reciting the traditional formula of consolation. At the conclusion of Shiva, mourners leave the home. Mourners take a walk around the block, a symbolic way of showing that they are ending one stage of mourning and are now returning to a semblance of normal living.
Jewish law provides an etiquette of behavior when visiting a Shiva home. Remember, your presence is more important than any words you might say.
Our tradition teaches us to console mourners with the phrase “HA-MAKOM Y’NAHEM ETKHEM B’TOKH SH’AR AYELE TZIYON VIRUSHALAYIM.” (“May God comfort you together with all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”)
Close friends should see to it that meals are provided for the mourners. Contributions in memory of the deceased are more appropriate than gifts brought to the Shiva home. Visitors to a Shiva home should not create a party atmosphere by overindulgence in food or idle conversation.
Do not try to distract mourners from confronting their loss. Probably the most meaningful thing you can do at a Shiva home is to share your memories of the deceased with the mourners. Keep your visit brief, and do not stay late. Visit also after Shiva ends. This is usually a very lonely time for those who have suffered a grievous loss.
Shloshim is the thirty-day period of mourning. The observance of Shloshim begins with the conclusion of Shiva and continues for twenty-three more days. Mourners during Shloshim curtails pleasures and celebrations. With the conclusion of Shloshim, obligations of mourning cease toward relatives other than parents and spouses.
When a Shloshim
Shloshim is the thirty day period of mourning. The observance of Shloshim begins with the conclusion of Shivah and continues for twenty three more days. Mourners during Shloshim curtails pleasures and celebrations. With the conclusion of Shloshim, obligations of mourning
cease toward relatives other than a spouse. This year begins with the day of death (unlike Shiva and Shloshim, which begin with the burial) and lasts for twelve months.
During this time mourners curtail participation in entertainment and joyous celebrations.
After the death of a parent or a spouse, Kaddish is recited by sons and daughters and the surviving spouse for eleven Hebrew months. Mourners are encouraged to recite Kaddish for other relatives as well. Hiring a stranger to recite Kaddish does not fulfill the personal obligations. Attend our daily morning and evening minyan and let the Kaddish be a bridge of love between you and your loved one, and a bridge which links you to our supportive minyan and caring Synagogue community. Daily minyan times are found on our website dhjc.org.
A monument may be erected over a grave at any time. Although a public unveiling ceremony is not required by Jewish law, many people choose to have a formal unveiling a few months to a year after the death of a loved one. It serves as a milestone in the process of mourning. Serving food or drink in a cemetery is inappropriate.
The memorial service for the dead is recited on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesach, and the second day of Shavuot, during the course of the regular YOM TOV (“holiday”) services. Mourners during their first year of bereavement may join in the Yizkor prayers. It is not necessary to leave the sanctuary if not saying Yizkor.
Yahrzeit is observed on the yearly anniversary of the Hebrew date of death. Attend services and recite Kaddish. Rabbi Buechler can help you determine the proper dates. A candle should be kindled for Yahrzeit. Visiting the grave, studying Torah, and giving a donation to Tzedekah are appropriate ways to honor and remember our departed.
May the memories of you loved ones bring blessings and inspiration into your life and the lives of your family