The Laws of Mourning
Jewish law mandates that the laws of mourning apply to those who experience the death of a parent, spouse, sibling, or child. In all other cases, no matter how strongly the loss is felt, there is no obligation to observe the laws of mourning. However, individuals may choose to observe the laws of mourning for extended family or friends, particularly if no actual mourners are observing these practices.
First Steps in the Bereavement Process
The funeral home will take responsibility for all matters in connection with the physical remains: transportation, preparation and supervision of the body, selection of a casket, use of funeral home rooms, contacting the cemetery and, if desired, the preparation and press placement of obituaries. In our area, a number of funeral homes are fully familiar with Jewish funeral practices. Contact our Rabbi for the most up-to-date information.
Please telephone the synagogue office (914-835-2850) or Rabbi Hammerman (914-320-4244, emergencies) prior to making funeral arrangements. Early notification will assist in making the services of the clergy and community fully available to the family and prevent the possibility of scheduling problems. The Rabbi is best able to counsel the bereaved regarding Jewish law and tradition with respect to the funeral and its timing.
Timing of Funeral and Burial
Jewish law dictates that burial occur as soon as possible – preferably within 24 hours of death. However, there are valid reasons for a delay: transportation of the body, notification of family, compliance with secular laws, and/or restrictions relating to burial on Shabbat or holy days. Arrangements themselves are not made on Shabbat or holy days. Nonetheless, the burial should never be delayed more than is absolutely necessary.
Aninut – Between Death and Burial
Shmira (Keeping Watch)
To ensure k’vod ha-met (respect for the dead), Jewish tradition encourages that the body of the deceased is attended constantly prior to burial. Customarily, a shomer (guardian) is engaged through the funeral home, although it is preferable for shomrim to be members of the family or friends of the deceased. As the shomer guards the body, tehillim (psalms) are recited.
The principle of k’vod ha-met dictates against routine autopsies as a desecration of the body. Autopsy is permitted, however, when required by secular law or under circumstances where medical knowledge may be gained to help the living.
Pursuant to the principle of pekuach nefesh (saving a life), there is no greater mitzvah then to bring healing to the living. Thus, the donation of an organ of the deceased for transplant is not only permissible but also mandated by the Conservative Movement. Organ donation cards are available at the synagogue offices.
Cremation is not consistent with the principle of k’vod ha-met. Accordingly, cremation has traditionally been forbidden under Jewish law. Still, the clergy of the synagogue may officiate at services where these has been a cremation. Cremated remains, however, may not be present in the synagogue building/sanctuaries.
Jewish law mandates that the body is permitted naturally to return to its source. Accordingly, neither embalming nor the use of cosmetics is permitted unless required by secular law.
Tahara (Ritual Cleansing and Purification)
The principle of k’vod ha-met prescribes that the deceased is washed and cleansed in accordance with a ritual (tahara) venerated by long Jewish tradition marked by the recitation of prayer and Psalms. Customarily, appropriate personnel in the funeral home or local hevrei kadisha (burial societies) are engaged to perform this mitzvah.
Halbasha (Burial Attire)
The age-old Jewish principle of inherent equality of all in death prescribes that the body is dressed solely in shrouds (tachrichim) – simple white linen similar to the garment worn by the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur. Additionally, the deceased may be dressed in his or her own talit and a kipah.
Similarly, the casket (aron) must permit natural processes to occur. Thus, the casket must be made wholly of wood. Neither nails nor metal of any kind are traditionally utilized. Again, Jewish tradition emphasizes the inherent equality of all persons in death. This is not a time for expressions of ostentation. Simplicity is encouraged in the selection of a casket.
Visitation and Display
Judaism encourages us to remember the deceased as they were in life. Therefore, the practice of visitation in the funeral home prior to the day of the funeral is contrary to Jewish law. Likewise, any display of the body or “open casket” is alien to Jewish tradition.
Kriah (Rending the Garment)
The act of rending a garment by a mourner is a visible sign of grief. Immediately prior to the funeral service, as the garment is torn, the Rabbi leads the mourners in the recitation of a blessing.
Often, nowadays, a black ribbon (provided by the funeral home) pinned to the clothes is substituted for the actual garment. In either case, the torn textile is to be worn throughout the 7-day mourning period (shiva), except on Shabbat. The tear should be on the left side over the heart for parents; for all others, the tear should be on the right side.
Onen (The Bereaved)
Between the time of death and the funeral, a person who is subject to the laws of mourning is referred to as an onen. An onen is exempt from the performance of affirmative religious obligations and should refrain from drinking wine, eating meat or indulging in pleasurable activity.
The Funeral Service
The Rabbi officiates and leads the mourners in prayer, selection from the Psalms and the chanting of the traditional memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim. A cantor is often present as well alongside or in place of the Rabbi if s/he is not available. The Rabbi and a few individuals selected by the family may offer a eulogy to the deceased. Sharing fond memories at this moment serves to ease the pain and keep in mind the legacy of the deceased.
Dress for the funeral should befit the solemnity of the occasion. In waiting for the Service to commence, one should conduct oneself with respect for the deceased and the family. One should refrain from socializing and loud conversation.
Flowers at the funeral and gravesite are not in accord with Jewish Tradition and practice. Instead, Judaism encourages tzedakah, contributions to charitable causes in memory of the deceased. The family should provide to the Rabbi a list of preferred charities that the Rabbi may announce during the Service.
“For dust you are and unto dust shall you return.” (Genesis 3:19)
Accompanying the dead to their final resting place and participating in the burial are great mitzvot. Jewish law absolutely mandates that the deceased must be buried in the ground (k’vurah b’karka). Jewish tradition calls for the mourners to be present as the casket is lowered into the grave. Prayers are recited. Employing a reversed shovel, the casket is covered by a mound of dirt. It is customary (but not obligatory) for the mourners and those in attendance each to participate in the act of covering the casket. These simple, symbolic acts are designed to make us understand the reality and finality of death and to help us to begin to heal. As the mourners withdraw from the grave, it is also customary for the family and friends to form two parallel rows between which the mourners walk and receive traditional expressions of consolation. Thereafter, either upon leaving the cemetery or before entering the house of mourning, it is traditional to wash one’s hands.
The Mourning Period – Shiva
Shiva means “seven” and refers to the seven-day period of intensive mourning that commences with the day of burial and ends on the morning of the seventh day thereafter. Shiva is not publicly observed on Shabbat but that day is counted in the seven. Certain holy days may foreshorten the shiva.
The purpose of the mourning period is to give the mourners the opportunity to grieve and to come to terms with their loss. During shiva, mourners remain at home (with the exception of Shabbat and holy days), temporarily removed from normal day-to-day activities, as they are comforted by friends and family while they attempt to adjust to life anew.
The Place of Mourning
It is important that a distinction be drawn between a house of shiva and a place of normal social interaction. As expressions of mourning, it is customary in a house of shiva for mirrors to be covered and for a seven-day memorial candle (to be provided by the funeral home) to be kindled without a blessing.
Commencement of Shiva
Shiva is customarily commenced with a meal of consolation (seudat havra-ah) prepared by friends and family
Conduct during Shiva
During shiva, mourners customarily sit upon lower chairs, benches or boxes. It is also customary for the mourners to refrain from wearing leather shoes and for males to refrain from shaving. Mourners must not consider themselves as hosts who are obligated to serve during the period of mourning. Visitors may bring kosher food but not flowers, gifts or other expressions of festivity. It is appropriate for visitors to refrain from greetings and salutations; rather, it is proper to express condolences and otherwise wait to be addressed by the mourner. Our synagogue will provide lower “shiva chairs” for those in mourning.
Religious Services during Shiva
Ordinarily, mourners should not leave the house of mourning during the mourning period. To the extent desired by the family, morning and evening services may be conducted at the home. Our synagogue has a Ritual Committee that will attempt to meet the needs of the mourners, including providing clergy or lay leaders to conduct the services and, when necessary, supplementing the mourners with members of the Congregation in order to ensure a minyan. Chairs and books of mourning for use during shiva are available and will be provided by the congregation. The desires of the family with respect to services should be discussed with the Rabbi prior to the commencement of shiva.
In our Congregation, there are exceptions to the practice of services in the home. On Thursday and Sunday mornings, services are held at the synagogue and mourners may attend – unless they would prefer that services be held in the Shiva home. On Shabbat, when shiva is suspended, mourners attend services at the synagogue on Friday evening and Saturday morning and recite Kaddish with those present.
Conclusion of Shiva
Shiva is concluded after morning minyan on the seventh day after burial. It is customary for the mourners to leave the home and walk around the block as a symbolic gesture that the period of intensive mourning has been completed and that normal life may be resumed.
Beyond the Shiva
Shloshim is the 30 day period of mourning that commences on the day of burial and continues for twenty-three days after the conclusion of shiva. During shloshim, return to work but refrain from public entertainment and social activities. Mourners continue to be obligated to recite the Kaddish daily.
Shanah (year) is the mandated period of mourning for a deceased parent only. This period commences on the day of burial and continues for eleven Hebrew months. Kaddish must be recited daily during this period as mourners continue to refrain from public celebratory entertainment.
A monument may be erected at the grave at any time. There is no required formal ceremony pursuant to Jewish law. Nonetheless, it is a tradition in many families to conduct a ritual unveiling at which prayers and readings are recited and the unveiled monument is dedicated. This rite can be performed by the family without clergy present or clergy may be present. Customarily, this rite is performed some time after the conclusion of shloshim and before the first yahrtzeit.
Yahrtzeit (the anniversary of the death) is observed each year on the date of death as marked by the Hebrew calendar. Kaddish is recited. On the eve of the yahrtzeit, a special (24-hour burning) candle is kindled. Many Jews make a visit to the cemetery during this time. The synagogue office will send out a card in advance to remind of the approaching anniversary.
Yizkor (Memorial Service)
Yizkor is observed on Yom Kippur, on Shemini Atzeret, on the eighth day of Passover, and on the second day of Shavuoth. Kaddish is recited during yizkor as we remember our loved ones who have passed from this realm. Traditions vary with respect to the lighting of a yahrtzeit candle on these days. However, most Jews do kindle a candle prior to Kol Nidre. Many also visit the cemetery in the days leading up to Yom Kippur.
This Guide has been prepared by the Ritual Committee of our synagogue in close consultation with our Rabbi. It is our sincere hope that the Guide will answer most questions relating to the death of a loved one. Please contact the Rabbi with regard to any special situations or circumstances beyond the scope of this Guide.
The March 2002 publication of this Guide was made possible by a generous grant from Dorothy Jaffe (of blessed memory)