Jewish Funeral Customs

When death takes a loved one, life seems empty and the future dark. Jews have guidance at sad times in our lives, because tradition has outlined ways to deal with death and its grief. Modern psychology has recognized the therapeutic value of the Jewish rituals and practices which help us to express our grief rather than repress it, to talk about our loss with friends and to move step by step from inactivity to normal living.

What To Do When a Death Occurs

Call the Jewish Funeral Home to arrange for proper care of the deceased. If a death occurs in a hospital, their staff can make this call for you. If a loved one dies out of town, call a Jewish funeral facility. If funeral prearrangements have not been made, you can ease the strain of planning the funeral by having someone, perhaps a close friend or family member, help you make decisions.

If you need assistance in choosing the funeral home, cemetery or other arrangements call  Rabbi Dimarsky atl 773/973-1800

Before the Funeral

Telephone immediate family, close friends and employer or business colleagues. Once the funeral time has been set, prepare the obituary. Items to consider including are: age, place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, memberships in organizations, military service or noteworthy achievements. List survivors in the immediate family. Give the time and place of the funeral. Suggest where memorial contributions may be made. Choose the pallbearers. Pallbearers are necessary when a funeral is held at the Synagogue; they are optional for a graveside service. Six people who can carry the casket are needed. It is customary not to choose immediate family members (like husband, brother or son). You will need to discuss the eulogy with the Rabbi. Be open and give as much personal insight as possible. Avoid false or exaggerated praise. Tell the good things enthusiastically; remember to mention what might be best left unsaid. It is wise to arrange for a house sitter during the funeral. Criminals often use obituaries to determine a time to break into homes.

The Mourner

The period of time between death and burial is called anninus and the bereaved is called an onen. The prime responsibility of the onen is to arrange the funeral. During this time, an onen is exempt from positive religious obligations. Only relatives or very close friends should visit during this time, primarily to help make arrangements for the funeral and shivah. After the funeral, a mourner is known as an avel. One is a mourner by obligation for parents, children, siblings or spouse.

Preparation for Burial

Our tradition has long stood for simplicity in funerals and mourning. A simple wooden casket is preferred. An ornate all-wood casket, though ritually acceptable, is not in the spirit of the law. Cremation is strictly forbidden. Before the deceased is dressed for burial, we observe the ritual of tahara, of ritual washing, done by the hevra kadisha (the Sacred Society). We dress the body only in traditional burial shrouds, tachrichin, which are simple white garments. Jewish tradition does not allow autopsies. However, there are times when an autopsy might be required by law or is needed for other reasons. Each case must be reviewed independently. Speak to Rabbi Dimarsky for further information. Jewish tradition does not allow embalming.

Flowers

Flowers are not part of Jewish mourning practice. In the spirit of honoring the memory of the dead by helping the living, suggest in the obituary that in lieu of flowers, donations be directed to Heritage Russian Jewish Congregation or to other appropriate charity. In Russian community many people feel very strong about bringing flowers to the funeral. If people bring flowers you can accept them.

The Funeral Service

A funeral can be held at graveside, the Synagogue or in the chapel of the Funeral home or cemetery. A service held only at graveside includes the same elements as those begun at another location. It is shorter because certain elements are repeated when a service is held in two locations. A graveside funeral is no less dignified nor less giving of honor to the deceased than any other service. The funeral service is brief. Selections are read from Psalms and a eulogy, depicting the life of the deceased as a guide for the living, is presented. Kel maleh rachamim, which expresses our faith in the immortality of the soul, is recited on most days. Once at graveside, the service consists of recitation of tziduk ha-din, a prayer which expresses our acceptance of God's decisions.

Kriah

Kriah is a centuries old symbol of inner grief and mourning. Mourners stand as they perform it, showing we face grief directly and that we will survive, even without our beloved departed. Before the cut is made, mourners say the blessing:

"Boruch Ato Ado-noy Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olom Dayan ha-Emes"

"Blessed are You God, King of the universe, true Judge", which is a reaffirmation of faith.

Shoveling Earth

After the casket is fully in the grave, the interment is begun by shoveling some earth into the grave. This mitzvah, is known as chesed shel emes, true loving-kindness. This mitzvah demonstrates our continuing concern for the deceased as we make sure the final journey of the met is completed. Participating in this mitzvah has been shown to be of great psychological benefit for mourners since it serves as an important action of finality and closure. After the grave is completely covered with earth, the mourners say Kadish.

After the funeral, those attending form two lines to let the mourners pass between them.
As they do, traditional words of comfort are said:

"Ha-makom yinachem es-chem besoch she-ar aveilei tziyon veerushalayim."

"May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

Children at a Funeral

Should children attend a funeral? There is no hard and fast rule that applies. If a child is old enough to understand the purpose of the funeral and to know that people will be upset, then generally that child should come to the funeral. The child should sit with an adult he or she knows during the service. Remember that children need the opportunity to say "good-bye" to a loved one as do adults. It is not good to deprive a child who is old enough to understand of an opportunity to say farewell and to begin to grieve.

Shivah

Shivah lasts seven days. The day of the funeral is the first day and one hour of the seventh day counts as a full day. Shivah is suspended at couple hours before Shabbos and is resumed after Shabbos is over. If a major holiday, such as Pesach, Shavuos, Sukkos, Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur falls during the shivah period, shivah is concluded at couple hours before the festival. 

The shivah period begins after the interment with a simple meal, the seudas havra'ah, the meal of consolation. There is a custom to rinse one's hands with water before entering the house for the meal. This meal, traditionally provided by family and friends for the mourners, is not meant to serve as a social following the funeral. Since it is a time to rest and contemplate the day's events, only family and closest of friends should attend. A party-like atmosphere should not be allowed to develop. The menu for this meal traditionally includes hard-boiled eggs, a symbol of life, and round food, such as lentils, which symbolize the turning of the wheel of life, with its ups and downs.

Sitting Shivah

Mourners should try to stay together at the place where shivah is observed. If they cannot, they may sleep in their own homes and return to the shivah house in the morning. Mourners should not go to work during this time. In its wisdom, our tradition recognizes that when a major change in life has taken place, the survivor needs to step out of everyday activity for a while. If it is imperative for a person to go back to work, one may return after three full days. However, this does not end shivah. After the work day is over, one should return home and resume shivah observance.

There are a number of practices associated with observing shivah. A seven-day candle (provided by funeral home) is lit upon returning from the cemetery. Mourners refrain from sexual relations and avoid forms of entertainment, such as television, during the week. There is also a custom to cover mirrors in the home, to show that we reduce the importance normally placed on personal vanity. Mourners are encouraged to observe the customs of not wearing shoes and sitting on low stools during shivah, which show that we change the way we live during this time.

Visiting Mourners

People pay "shivah calls" to fulfill the mitzvah of nihum avelim, comforting the mourners. These visits demonstrate community concern at the time of loss. The visits help the mourners over the feelings of isolation or desertion, both of which are natural feelings after the death of a loved one. Even if many people have gathered, those present should be sure a party-like atmosphere does not develop. Conversation should center on the life and memories of the departed. Contrary to popular belief, talking about the deceased is helpful to the mourner. Such conversations help the mourner to begin the process of getting over their grief. If you have been through a time of personal grief and the mourner asks you how you felt or how you managed, share your own experience. Mourners often take comfort in knowing that others have experienced similar feelings.

Mourners are not obligated to have food or drink available for those who come to visit.

Shivah Services

It is traditional to hold services at a house of shivah. Our Synagogue can provide prayer books for use in homes. If a family does not have morning and evening services in the home during the week of shivah, it is proper to attend services at the Synagogue and then return home. During shivah, mourners attend Shabbos services at the Synagogue: Friday evening, Saturday morning and evening.

After Shivah

The length of the mourning period varies with on the mourner's relation to the deceased. For all but parents, avelus, the mourning period, ends with shloshim, thirty days after the funeral. For parents, the mourning period lasts a full Hebrew year.

Shloshim, a thirty day period, is the second stage of mourning. Mourners may return to their regular activities in business and home. However, it is appropriate for mourners to refrain from festive activities such as going to the movies, theater, dances or parties.

During the remainder of the mourning period, what may be considered appropriate activities depend largely on the sensibilities of each mourner. During the first year of mourning for one's parents or during the first thirty days of mourning for other relatives we don't go to weddings (one can go to a chuppah only), banquets and concerts.

The Kadish

Although Jewish Law requires that the Kaddish be recited during the first eleven months following the death of a loved one by prescribed mourners, and on each anniversary of the death the Yahrtzeit, there is no reference, no word even, about death in the prayer!

The theme of Kaddish is, rather, the Greatness of God, Who conducts the entire universe, and especially his most favored creature, each individual human being, with careful supervision. In this prayer, we also pray for peace - from apparently the only One Who can guarantee it - peace between nations, peace between individuals, and peace of mind.

Paradoxically, this is, in fact, the only true comfort in the case of the loss of a loved one. That is, to be able to view the passing of the beloved individual from the perspective that that person's soul was gathered in, so to speak, by the One Who had provided it in the first place.

As Beruriah, the great wife of Rabbi Meir, consoled her husband, upon the death of their two sons, with words to this effect, "A soul is comparable to an object which was given to us - to each individual, to his or her parents and loved ones, to guard and watch over for a limited time. When the time comes for the object to be returned to its rightful owner, should we not be willing to return it? With regard to our sons, let us therefore consider the matter as 'The Lord gave, and the Lord took back, may the Name of the Lord be Blessed!' "

Learn more about kadish