Jewish Death and Mourning 101

TRADITION

Judaism promotes a natural and supportive process for transitioning from life to death, as well as mourning individuals we have lost. The death and mourning period are delineated  by time markers which signify shifts from one period of mourning to another. Collectively the death and mourning period occurs over a 12 month period. But we also continue to remember our loved ones who have passed throughout the year during the yizkor service which is said on Passover, Shavuot, Shemini Atzeret and Yom Kippur. Once a year, on the Hebrew date of our loved one’s passing, we light a yahrzeit (year’s time) candle and recite Kaddish Yatom (mourner’s kaddish). While difficult and intense, the Jewish process for losing a loved one and mourning their death is meant to be a period of community support, comfort, and realistic expectations on the limited capacity one can have while grieving a loved one. This 101 is split into two sections: the elements leading up to a Jewish death and the Jewish process of mourning and its elements.

ELEMENTS OF A JEWISH DEATH AND MOURNING

Before Death

If a person is ill, there is an obligation to perform the mitzvah (commandment) of Bikur Holim (visiting sick) whenever possible. Bikur Holim is visits to the hospital or the sick person’s home. There are other ways you can show people who are sick your support, such as:

  • cards to remind the person ill that people are thinking of them

  • offering their name to be recited during the Mi Sheberakh (a prayer for those who are ill)

  • other acts of encouraging recovery and blessing.

Preparing to Say Goodbye

When a person comes close to death (if it is not a rapid or traumatic death) many times the family or close loved ones will ask a rabbi to come to the hospital or the ill person’s home to recite prayers and “assist” the person in their transition from life to death. This “assisting” is coaching the dying person (if they are cognizant) in reciting specific prayers as they approach death.

This is also a time for family and close loved ones to spend last moments with the dying person, saying goodbye, reliving moments, processing difficult experiences which have been weighing on both individuals, and whatever else may bring comfort to the person who is dying.

It is important to remember that in the transition we strive to comfort the person dying and be present with whatever feelings they may be experiencing, and not focus on the mourners. The mourning period is a time for the mourners to grieve, process, and receive support after their loved one has passed. If you, as the mourner, feel you need more support during the dying process, you are encouraged to seek spiritual guidance from a rabbi, attend death and dying workshops or support groups, and seek counseling if helpful.

Prayers to Prepare for Death

There are two elements which are encouraged but not obligated to be performed by the person who is dying.

  • Saying Shema: The dying person recites the Shema, which is a prayer acknowledging the oneness of G-d and our interconnection with G-d and the universe. People with the person dying should recite the Shema with them and if the dying person is not cognizant, any one can say it for them.

  • Doing Teshuva (repentance): The dying person sometimes has the ability to recall any transgressions or ill will they have given to others or to themselves, and this recalling relieves the person of their weighing burdens. There is also a more formal prayer called the Vidui which encapsulates many sins and transgressions performed throughout one’s life. 

  • *One is encouraged to recite the Shema and Vidui even if death is not imminent, just in case.

If possible, it is a sign of respect to remain as the person transitions from life to death. Upon the person’s death some people say: Baruch Dayan HaEmet (Blessed is the true judge). 

From Death to Burial

Once a person has passed, their loved ones enter the period of aninut, which lasts from the moment of death through the burial.

  • Upon hearing of the death of someone or witnessing the death, some do kriyah (tearing) in which they tear a small section of their clothing (usually on the collar) to symbolize their deep grief in losing a loved one. A modern innovation of the ritual of kriyah is to rip a black ribbon and pin the ripped ribbon to your clothes signifying to the community that you are in mourning. The tear/ribbon is on the right side of the body unless the person lost was a parent and then the tear/ribbon is on the left side.

  • Many people abstain from work, do not go to parties or live extravagantly during this period. 

  • The body of the person who died is traditionally watched by a shomer/shomeret (guard) until the time of burial. This is a practice of the mitzvah (commandment) of kavod hamet (honoring the deceased). A shomer/shomeret usually recites Psalms while sitting with the body. The origins of this practice may be that historically Jews believed that the soul was susceptible to supernatural influences. 

  • Jewish law discouraged defiling the body in any way after death. Some Orthodox communities (not all) have dictated that this means the person may not donate their organs or have an autopsy. Many communities (both liberal and some Orthodox) overturn this law if the organ donation will save someone’s life, or if the autopsy will advance medical knowledge, or could save someone else’s life.

  • The body then undergoes the process of taharah (ritual purification and washing of the body). A group of volunteers called a hevra kaddisha (holy community) thoroughly washes the body and prepares it for burial.  The deceased is dressed in a simple white linen shroud and/or in their tallit (prayer shawl). This minimal dressing is to symbolize the body’s return to the ground and the cycle of life. The deceased person is placed in a simple pine box which is easy to decompose so that the body can return efficiently to the ground. Normally the body is not viewed in respect for the deceased. 

Funeral and burial

The second stage of mourning is halvayat hamet (accompanying the deceased):

  • In Jewish tradition, bodies are not embalmed, and so burial is done as soon as possible, (usually within 3 days). There is no mandated service content for a funeral, but it commonly contains various Psalms, a prayer called El Maley Rachamim, a eulogy, and the kaddish yatom (mourner’s kaddish), which is recited, by the family.

  • Traditionally, family, would recite the mourner’s kaddish but in recent times anyone who feels compelled to say mourner’s kaddish may join them.

  • Funerals do not have to be at a synagogue--they can be in someone’s home, at a funeral home, or at a community center.

  • The body is not displayed at the funeral as Jewish tradition dictates this as a sign of respect to the deceased loved one and respect for the loved ones mourning their loss.

  • Funerals are not conducted on Shabbat or Jewish holidays and usually occur in the daytime. Flowers are discouraged in order to keep funerals simple. Many families suggest charities which people may contribute to in memory of the deceased, and many communities organize meal options for the mourners in order to provide for the family while they are grieving.

  • Historically, Jews have been opposed to cremation as Jewish tradition considered it as a desecration of the body. If you or your Jewish loved one would like to be cremated, check with the cemetery to insure they allow cremated remains to be buried in the Jewish cemetery. (Not all Jewish cemeteries allow this). A funeral director or rabbi can help you navigate this should you need assistance.

  • After the funeral mourners escort the casket to the gravesite, and again recite a special version of the mourner’s kaddish. After the casket has been lowered into the ground mourners help to bury the body. Shovels are typically provided, and it is traditional to turn the shovel upside down for the first three scoops of soil, using the back of the shovel instead of the front. This symbolizes a reluctance to bury a loved one. Immediate family of the person who died shovel first, followed by anyone else who would like to take part. It is considered a mitzvah to help in the burial of someone in the community.

  • Mourners leave the graveside first, and others say to them the traditional words, “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

  • After leaving the cemetery, it is traditional to wash one’s hands, harkening back to ritual purity practices in the Temple. 

Beginning to mourn

The third stage of mourning is shiva (seven):

  • Immediately following the funeral, the immediate family of the deceased (parents, siblings, children, and spouse) sit shiva for seven days. A yahrzeit (year’s time/memorial) candle is kept burning for the entire seven days. During this time of shiva, family members are encouraged to mourn in whatever way is comforting. Many times there are organized shiva minyanim (prayer quorums) in which friends and family will come to the place of shiva and participate in a prayer service followed by comforting the mourners and sharing of memories of the deceased. Those sitting shiva will sit on low stools, a symbol of the poverty they feel without their loved one, and cover mirrors to show that they are not concerned with how they look in this moment of grief.

  • Shiva, traditionally, is seven days in which none of the family goes to work or participates in normal life. This practice has been adapted within the past few decades in that some families choose to sit for three days, enabling them to return to work or whatever manner of life which is least obstructive. Traditionally, mourners do not cut their hair, shave or use makeup during this time; sex is also avoided during shiva

Mourning out in the world

The fourth stage of mourning is shloshim (the first thirty days after a death):

  • After the shiva has concluded, those who sat shiva remain in mourning but with less restrictions. The mourner’s kaddish continues to be said daily. During shloshim, mourners avoid parties and celebrations. Most choose to hold another minyan (prayer service) at the end of shloshim (the end of 30 days since the deceased passed). 

  • Common references to the person who has died when reciting their name are alav/aleha hashalom (peace be upon him/her), or zichrono/zichrona livracha (his/her memory is a blessing). 

  • It is important to continue supporting the mourners after they finish sitting shiva as the mourners are still in deep mourning and need the support of their loved ones and community. 

A year of mourning

The fifth stage of mourning is aveilut (the first 11 months):

  • Traditionally, those who have lost a parent remain in mourning for 12 months following the death of their loved one. The mourner’s kaddish is recited every day (if possible) for 11 months from the date of their loved one’s passing. Within the past few decades the practice of reciting kaddish for loved ones has expanded, and in some communities it is common for anyone who wants to acknowledge the passing a loved one (whether friend, lover, mentor, etc) to say kaddish.

  • Some mourners choose to avoid public celebrations during their year of mourning, and refrain from attending events where there will be live music, to mark that they are taking the year to grieve.

  • On the Hebrew date, a year after a loved one has passed, family and friends mark the deceased person’s yahrzeit. This is marked by lighting a yahrzeit candle which remains lit for the entire date of the memorial of the person’s death. Mourners recite the mourner’s kaddish on the yahrzeit, and on every subsequent anniversary of the death. If one cannot attend synagogue on the exact day of the yahrzeit, many communities will read or ask for names of those observing yahrzeits at Friday night and/or Saturday morning services. 

Marking the burial

The sixth stage of mourning is the unveiling:

  • Usually Jewish people are buried without a tombstone at the initial burial. Many families and loved ones choose to erect a tombstone or memorial plaque a year or more the burial. Some families and friends will ask a rabbi or a specific loved one to come and perform an unveiling ritual (which has no specific liturgy) usually comprised of the singing of El Maley Rakhamim, various Psalms and the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish

Mourning in Jewish liturgy

Throughout the Jewish year there are four holidays which include a yizkor (remembrance) service in addition to the holiday service. There holidays are: Pesach, Shemini Atzeret, Shavuot and Yom Kippur. Yizkor is a time to publicly and communally acknowledge those who have passed from our lives, and to make a pledge to give tzedakah (charity) in their honor.

SAMPLE TRADITIONAL CEREMONY
SAMPLE INNOVATIVE CEREMONIES
SAMPLE ADDITIONS TO JEWISH DEATH OR MOURNING RITUAL

The Tearing

A poem for tearing keriah (rending garments upon hearing of the death of a loved one or at the beginning of a funeral service).    more
Poem
CUSTOMIZE YOUR CEREMONY

Make this ritual meaningful to you by choosing poems, prayers, and other ritual components to add to the ceremony. Start at Death and Mourning and search by clicking the arrow on the dropdown menu: "Filter by Type." Search by "poem," "prayer," "reading," etc., and discover new texts to design the right ritual for you. Already have a ritual component or ceremony to share? Submit your original work to Ritualwell!

Primary Category: 

Want the latest news from Ritualwell?

Subscribe to our email list for announcements of new rituals, Jewish inspiration, online classes, and more!

NEW! Rosh Hashanah Greeting Cards

Available now in the Ritualwell Store!