Jewish Mourning & Burial Practices
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 forbidden. The
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
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
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).