Jewish Mourning & Burial Practices

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


The Meaning of Life & Death in Our Jewish World


As children, we learned the importance of life at our parents' knee.  In Judaism life is valued above almost all else.  The Talmud notes that all people are descended from a single person; thus taking a single life is like destroying an entire world. Of the (Karyagim Mitzwot) six hundred thirteen commandments, only the prohibitions against murder, idolatry, incest and adultery are so important that they cannot be violated to save a life.

There are multitudinous rituals, beliefs and superstitions connected with death.  There are those of us who believe that we should show our love and respect for our family and friends by honoring them when they are alive rather than waiting until they can no longer see, hear, or appreciate the eulogies that occur after they have left this planet.  How often have we heard from our beloved mothers and fathers:  In life, honor, respect and love me  (“zu Lebzeiten tut mir koved an”).  I am a strong proponent of this adage.  A brother or sister who chooses to ignore his parents or siblings by not speaking to one or all of them need not eulogize them with flowery praises after their death.  The hurt that they have perpetrated upon their family member(s) has penetrated their very soul - their very being - and cannot be healed after they have ceased to exist. “Scholom Bayis” is an essential concept (peace in the home), has a deeper meaning, including the home, the nuclear and the extended family.  A lack of peace among siblings is a very pitiful state, lowering the esteem and the self worth of the person or persons thus targeted.

In Judaism we have a firm belief in an afterlife, a world to come, where those who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded.

Mourning practices are extensive.  They have two purposes:  To show respect for the dead and to comfort the living who will miss the deceased.  After a person dies, the eyes are closed, the body is covered and thoroughly washed from head to toe, and candles are lit next to the body.  Until three shovels of dirt are on the casket the deceased is never left alone.  The “Shomrim” (guards/watchers) remain with the corpse until it is securely in the ground.  Respect for the dead is of paramount importance.  The person or persons guarding the body may not eat, drink or perform tasks in the presence of the deceased.  To do so is considered mocking the corpse, since he or she can no longer do these things. Most synagogues have an organization to take care of the body of the deceased and perform the necessary functions (as decreed by our Jewish laws) known as the chevra kadisha (the holy society), volunteers. Their work is considered a Mitzva (good deed), since they are performing a function for which they will not receive remuneration, since the dead cannot pay them.  To do a good deed without compensation is meritorious in itself. After a thorough cleansing/washing of the entire body, it is wrapped in a simple plain linen shroud.  The casket must be simple so that a poor person will not receive less honor than a rich person.  Cremation is forbiddenThe body is never displayed at funerals.  Open caskets are forbidden.  There is a seven day period of mourning for the next of kin who sit close to the floor. All mirrors are covered, vanity is left behind, prayer services are held in the house.  Friends bring food so that the mourners do not have to do anything but mourn their loss and pray, and are helped to lessen their pain while reminiscing about their loved one who has gone to eternity.

Shloshim (thirty days after the burial) the mourners do not attend frivolities, they do not shave or cut their hair and do not listen to music.  The final period of formal mourning is observed only for a parent.  This period lasts for twelve months after the burial.  Mourners avoid parties, celebrations, theater and concerts.  The son or daughter during that year recites the kaddish daily for the deceased.

Visitors to the house of the mourner should permit the mourner to speak, to express his sadness and his feelings of loss without giving common platitudes and or dissuading the person to express his grief.  This, the expression of grief, is the purpose of the mourning period.

Tombstones are necessary so that the deceased will not be forgotten.  Most important let us forget our insignificant or otherwise grievances and begin to honor and value our  living brethren.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Deviant Nurses & Improper Patient Care (2006).

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