There is no easy way to say goodbye to a loved one. Death remains one of the great mysteries of life, a mystery which compels most anyone who faces it to seek direction and guidance. Death is a time when we naturally think about questions that have no answers. And we meet, face-to-face, with a frightening reality: our own mortality. The passing of a loved one can even be a time of anger, a somewhat disturbing emotion, to be sure, but one which psychologists assert is perfectly natural when confronting loss.
The wisdom of our sages and the inspiration afforded by belief in God have combined to give us an amazing ritual structure to help us cope. In fact, the Jewish people have long been famous for their simple yet dignified traditions surrounding bereavement. These traditions are our traditions and what follows is a brief explanation and guide to them all.
Two MITZVOT (literally: sacred connections; singular: MITZVAH) shape the Jewish practices of mourning. The first is K’VOD HAMAYT - - Honoring the Deceased. Our sages compared the sacredness of the deceased to that of an impaired Torah scroll which, although no longer usable, still retains its holiness. In Jewish tradition, therefore, the greatest consideration and respect is accorded the dead. The second Mitzvah is NEEHOOM AVAYLEEM - - Comforting the Mourners. When a member of the community dies, it is the community’s responsibility to lovingly assist the deceased’s family in this final act of respect. Such assistance is known as HESED SHEL EMET- - a True Act of Kindness, for it is performed without ulterior motive, the dead being unable to repay the favor.
Another important term to understadn is HALAKHAH, a Hebrew term meaning the Jewish path in life. It is Halakhah which guides us in determining what must and what need not be done. The Conservative Movement is based on Halakhah and as such, we guide our actions by it.
Halakhah requires that burial take place as quickly as possible, usually within 24 hours of death. Although burial may be delayed for a variety of reasons, it should not be delayed longer than necessary. Such special cases as death by accident of suicide, or death of children under 30 days of age, should be referred to the rabbi for guidance.
SHMIRAH / WATCHING THE BODY
Jewish tradition requires that the deceased not be left alone prior to burial. Funeral chapels generally have provisions for the hiring of a SHOMER (translation: Guardian; plural: SHOMREEM) who, remaining with the deceased, recites psalms and studies Torah. Where the funeral chapel allows members or friends of the family to act as SHOMREEM, you may choose to follow this beautiful tradition.
The practice of routine autopsy is contrary to Halakha since it is viewed as a violation of the body. In most cases, when an autopsy is recommended, the family can refuse. Where autopsy is required by state law, Halakhah would require consent.
Organ donation in many cases is a clear act of PEEKOOAH NEFESH (translation: Saving A Life), which is a great mitzvah. Moreover, by bringing recovery to the living, we may also bring comfort to the mourners, again a mitzvah of the highest order. It is therefore permissible to will or donate certain organs or tissues.
TAHARAH / RITUAL CLEANSING OF THE BODY
Halakhah requires that the deceased be cleansed according to a prescribed ritual. It is an expression of respect. A group of specially trained people who compose a HEVRA KADDISHA (translation: Holy Society) perform this Mitzvah.
TAKHRIKHIM / BURIAL ATTIRE
Halakhah mandates burial in plain white garments which demonstrate the equality of all. For those who leave this world, TAKHRIKHIM have thus become the appropriate clothing, unlike a suit or dress. In addition, a Jewish male is customarily buried wearing a KEEPAH (translation: Yarmulkeh) and his own TALLIT (translation: Prayer Shawl).
Halakhah prohibits embalming which impedes the natural decomposition of the body. Embalming is generally not required by civil law except when a body must be shipped across state lines.
Halakhah prohibits cremation, viewing it as a desecration of the body. Certainly, in this post-Holocaust age, cremation conjures up a host of painful memories for the Jewish community and should thus be avoided.
ARON / CASKET
Traditional Jewish burial took place without a casket. The deceased was simply placed in the earth’s direct embrace. Today, when civil law requires the use of a casket, Halakha defines the Kosher casket as one made entirely of wood, without nails or metal decoration, so as to not hamper the natural return of the body to the earth.
LINERS AND VAULTS
A liner is a bottomless, rectangular concrete structure, with a top, into which the casket is lowered. A cemetery will sometimes require its use to inhibit ground sinkage. Although Halakhah would prefer that it not be used, the liner is not technically in violation of Jewish Law. A vault, however, is a steel-reinforced concrete structure with both a top and bottom. Since a vault prevents the casket from touching the ground, its use is a clear violation of Halakhah and adds only an unnecessary financial burden on the family.
ABOVE GROUND BURIAL
Above ground burial is typically a violation of the Halakhah.
LEVEYAH / THE FUNERAL
Flowers are pretty, but not necessary. Friends and associates of the deceased who wish to show some concrete expression of condolence should be encouraged to contribute to a worthy charity.
Public or private viewing of the body is contrary to Jewish Tradition. Where the funeral chapel feels an identification is necessary, a member or friend of the family who knew the deceased, but is not technically an AVEL (see next paragraph), may assume that responsibility.
AVEL / THE MOURNER
At a time of death, many people will grieve, but the Halakhah has a specific definition of who the AVEL (translation: mourner) is. An Avel is anyone who has lost a spouse, sibling, parent, or child. A grandchild, therefore, may grieve, but is not an AVEL. The HALAKHAH thus limits the number of people upon whom the obligation to mourn falls, in keeping with the life- orientation of Judaism.
K’REEAH / RENDING OF THE GARMENTS
The AVEL participates in K’REEAH (translation: Rending) just prior to the service. This rite consists of tearing a visible portion of clothing or black ribbon provided for that purpose. The torn garment is worn throughout SHIVAH - - the first seven days of mourning - - except on Shabbat and festivals.
The service is generally conducted at the funeral home or gravesite. It is brief and simple. Psalms and EL MALAY RAHAMEEM -- (translation: “God, full of Compassion”, the first three words of the traditional memorial prayer - - are chanted. A HESPAYD (translation: Eulogy) honoring the deceased is given. Fraternal ceremonies and instrumental music are not appropriate during the funeral service. A friend or memberof the family who wishes to deliver some words of comfort is encouraged to do so, that courageous act being regarded as a tribute to the deceased.
Family and friends, men and women, may serve as the pallbearers, all of whom are carefully chosen by the family.
AT THE CEMETERY
WHO MAY ATTEND?
Anyone may go to the cemetery, including children and pregnant women. It is especially good for children to see that a cemetery is not a “scary” place and that the various rituals are enacted with love. A KOHAYN (member of the priestly order) goes to the cemetery only if an AVEL.
CARRYING THE CASKET
The pallbearers customarily stop seven times while carrying the casket to the grave. The act symbolizes hesitancy in bidding a final farewell to the deceased. The casket precedes the mourners, family and friends, as a sign of respect.
K’VOORAH / BURIAL
The casket is lowered into the ground. At that time, all who wish to participate let three shovelfuls of earth fall, very gently, into the grave. Burial is performed by family and friends since they are most capable of burying with the love and dignity such an act deserves, unlike strangers, hired help or machinery. The shovel is replaced in the mound of dirt, but not passed from one person to the next, so as not to symbolize the passing of sorrow from one person to the next. If a MINYAN (ten Jewish adults) is present, the KADDISH is recited.
It is customary for the AVEL to pass between two rows of the others in attendance to receive a traditional expression of consolation (see the last page of the booklet for the full text). After burial, it is also traditional to wash the hands, without a blessing. This act symbolizes our having fully completed all tasks which bear on the laying to rest of a loved one. Hand washing may take place at the cemetery, but generally occurs before entering the Shivah house. A pitcher of water, paper toweling and garbage bag should be placed at the front door.
PERIODS OF MOURNING
SHIVAH / THE FIRST SEVEN DAYS
SHIVAH is the seven-day period of mourning observed by the immediate family of the deceased, beginning on the day of burial. There is a common misconception that Shivah lasts only three days. This practice should be discouraged. Not only do three days cheat the mourners of time necessary to ease back into daily life, the three day shivah places an unfair burden on the rest of the community who wish to extend condolences. During the entire seven days, the AVEL stays away from work or school, remains at home and lets the healing process unfold.
Public mourning observances are suspended on Shabbat in view of the belief that the sanctity and serenity of this day supersedes personal grief. Mourners are encouraged to attend Shabbat services, but they are not given an ALLEYAH (translation: Torah Honor) and do not conduct the services. ON SHABBAT, THE K’REEAH IS NOT WORN PUBLICLY. A major festival terminates Shivah.
S’OODAT HAVRA-AH / MEAL OF CONSOLATION
It is customary for family and friends to arrange for a kosher S’OODAT HAVRA-AH, served to the mourners at the Shiva House when they return from the cemetery. Hard-boiled eggs should be available; they symbolize rebirth and the cyclical nature of life – there is death, yes, but there is also birth. Any round foods, like olives or certain types of fruits or nuts, are appropriate. The mourners should not serve as hosts or otherwise entertain their visitors.
OTHER MOURNING CUSTOMS
It is customary to cover mirrors in the Shivah home, thus releasing the AVEL from any preoccupation with physical appearance. In the same vein, mourners do not wear leather shoes and do not shave. They are provided with firm cardboard boxes on which to sit, a physical reflection of “feeling low”. A seven-day memorial candle is lit, a symbol of the soul. Greetings between mourners and visitors are not normally exchanged.
KADDISH / SANCTIFYING GOD’S NAME
The tradition to conduct services in the Shivah House provides the AVEL with the minyan required for the recitation of Kaddish – a prayer in which we sanctify God. The Kaddish, so often associated with mourners, is a way in which the AVEL reestablishes a connection with God at a time when that relationship may be strained. To say Kaddish is a great tribute to the memory of a loved one.
Kaddish is the obligation of the AVEL. Children recite the Kaddish for eleven months at both the morning and evening services. All other mourners recite Kaddish only for the SH’LOSHEEM, or 30 day period, unless they
assume the eleven month obligation in place of children unavailable or unwilling to do so.
The tradition is to hire a man to recite Kaddish is far less important than the mourner’s commitment to say Kaddish him/herself on a regular basis, even if not a daily basis. Mourning is a time when a daily or weekly commitment to attend synagogue services should be made. Grandchildren and other relatives who wish to memorialize a loved one through prayer can do so, but not with the Kaddish. Jewish tradition has deliberately limited those who are obligated to mourn. Recitation of the Kaddish by those not obligated to do so blurs an important distinction between the AVEL and everyone else. The rabbi can provide interested relatives with more appropriate prayers.
A representative of the synagogue will assist in providing for home services in the evening, and the morning if mourners so desire.
SH’LOSHEEM / THE FIRST THIRTY DAYS
During the 30 days following burial (excluding Shivah), mourners return to work and normal activities but refrain from public entertainment or social activities. In place of home services, mourners attend synagogue daily to recite KADDISH.
SHANAH / THE FIRST YEAR
Mourners for deceased parents continue to attend services daily to recite Kaddish for eleven months and continue to refrain from celebratory activities for a full year.
YAHRZEIT / ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH
The Kaddish is recited each year on the anniversary of death (not of burial) on a day known by the Yiddish word YAHRZEIT. A special 24 hour Yahrzeit candle (available at most grocery stores and Kosher butcher shops) is lit. The Yahrzeit is an appropriate day on which to visit the grave. A charitable contribution is generally made in memory of the deceased. This act of charity I known by the Hebrew term TZDAKKAH and is one of the most important Mitzvot in the Jewish tradition.
YIZKOR / MEMORIAL SERVICE
The special memorial service know as YIZKOR is recited on Yom Kippur, Sh’mini Atzeret, and the last day of Pesah and Shavout. Attending a temple service on these occasions allows for the recitation of the Kaddish. A Tzdakkah contribution is again appropriate.
NEEHOOM AVAYLIM / COMFORTING THE BEREAVED
Condolence calls should be made after the funeral, during the week of Shivah, except on Shabbat. The most important form of consolation is just “being there” for the mourner. The second most important form is attentive listening. It is important to provide an opportunity for dear ones to grasp what is happening and so express their concerns. As such, impertinent talk, gossip, frivolous conversation, etc. ought to be held to a minimum. Please keep in mind that Shivah can be exhausting for the mourners. Keep your visit brief and don’t stay late.
Giving comfort to mourners over an extended period of time is understandably hard to do. Your willingness to address your own discomfort and discouragement will be necessary if you are to succeed. No one of us should assume total responsibility for a dear one’s well-being. To be fully effective, a comforter must recognize and value the potential contribution of clergy, social service and health professionals to the welfare of those who have suffered a loss.
JEWISH BELIEFS ABOUT AFTER-LIFE
In Emet Ve-Emunah, the first statement of the principles of Conservative Judaism, published in 1988, we read: “For the individual human being, we affirm that death does not mean extinction and oblivion. This conviction is articulated in our tradition in the two doctrines of the bodily resurrection of the dead and the continuing existence, after death and through eternity, of the individual soul.”
T’HEEYAT HA-MAYTEEM / BODILY RESURRECTION
This doctrine, often identified (in error) as Christian in origin, is a belief firmly based in Jewish tradition. Some understand the doctrine literally while others see its truth in the continuation of our genetic make-up
through the lives of our children.
N’SHAMAH / SOUL
The belief that there is something within each human being which is both indestructible and immortal is a perfectly legitmate Conservative Jewish belief. As such, death may be viewed as both an end and a beginning.
Because Judaism has a definite “here-and-now” orientation, extensive speculation about heaven never figured prominently in the rabbinic literature. Then again, there is no way to deny the legitimate basis for belief in heaven as part of Jewish tradition. Where such a belief brings comfort to the mourner, we should not pooh-pooh its validity. In the words of Emet Ve-Emunah: “In sum, if God is truly God, if God's power is the ultimate fact in this world, then God's ability to touch us is not cut off by the grave.”
EXPLAINING DEATH TO CHILDREN
Mr. Rogers writes: [A]nything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable can be manageable.” He is correct. Death is something that we can - - and must -- speak to our children about.
We owe our children the truth. When it comes to death, however, what is and is not true will depend greatly on our own individual understanding of death. It is therefore important to consider the following when speaking with children.
- If a child expresses anger or sadness about death, that expression is true-- a feeling never lies. A feeling should therefore never be criticized or denied.
- Some adults find it much more difficult to talk about death than do children. A child’s need to talk does not stem from disrespect, but from curiosity. In answering children’s questions honestly, we are helping them cope with the loss they may feel. Should we refuse to answer their questions, they may provide themselves with fantasy answers far worse than reality itself
WORKING WITH A CHILD’S LITERAL MIND
When a child is told that someone has died, s/he may want to know what it’s like to die. Explanations should be kept to a minimum with a maximum emphasis placed on what the child thinks death is. In hearing what the child has to say about death, we can correct the misconceptions and confirm the appropriate beliefs.
A child may want to know how a dead person eats. Answer: after death, there is no longer any need to eat. A child may want to know where a dead person goes to the bathroom. Answer: after death, there is no longer any need to go the the bathroom. One child asked whether the dead person will be celebrating any birthdays. Answer: there are no more birthdays for the dead person. These questions may be asked over and over again. Be patient. The child is trying to assimilate new information about a concept even adults find difficult to fathom.
There are some explanations which should be avoided. Do not describe death as a sleep from which there is no waking. A child may grow frightened of going to bed. Do not describe death as taking a journey from which there is no return. A child may become extremely anxious of any vacation the family plans or protest bitterly when a parent must leave on a business trip. Finally, you may believe that God “took” someone because He desired to be closer with such a good person, but think twice before passing that thought to children. What kind of God rewards goodness with death? This explanation poses all sorts of problems about the goodness of God as well as the worth of being good at all.
RESPECTING CHILDREN’S CONCERNS
The anxiety caused by death may make a child ask questions about the death of his parents - - if Mommy or Daddy die, who will take care of me? It is appropriate to assure a child that Mommy and Daddy are going to live for a long, long time. A child can honestly be told that generally, people who die are much older than either Mommy or Daddy, or that they have been very sick for a long time, unlike his/her parents.
Sometimes a child believes that s/he has been the cause of another’s death, either by virtue of a “sinful” thought (e.g., I wish he’d die!) or a troubled family life where expressions of love were deficient (e.g., if only I loved her more. . .). Children should be assured that such thoughts or family problems are not the causes of death.
MAY A CHILD ATTEND A FUNERAL?
It depends. Parents are the best judges of how their children will respond to a funeral. More importantly, they are the best judges of how others will act at a funeral. If we want our children to be accepting of the reality of death, understanding it to be a sad though natural part of life, exposing them to the hysteria of a deeply bereaved individual will be counterproductive. On the other hand, being excluded from a rite of passage may be more painful than loss itself. Where parents needn’t worry about hysterical friends or relatives, a funeral and a trip to the cemetery can provide all sorts of healthy answers to questions children may have about death and bereavement. In any event, the questions children may have about what happens at a funeral and at the cemetery should be answered simply and directly, either by parents or the rabbi.
The rabbi will probably say all sorts of nice things about the deceased - - wouldn’t it be good for the grandchildren to hear that? At one funeral, a five year old helped in letting dirt fall into the grave. When asked about the experience, she said - - this will keep Grandma warm. At that point, it was not necessary to question whether the dead have any perception of warmth or cold. What was significant was a little girl having the sense of doing something a value for her grandmother who died. That sense brought her consolation and consolation is what a funeral is all about.
AN IMPORTANT ANSWER- - I’M REALLY NOT SURE, BUT I BELIEVE…
There are many questions which have no objective answer. Is there a heaven? Is there such a thing as a soul? Is there a God who cares for and looks after the people who die? These are questions which make the most intelligent people grope for answers. When grappling with such impossible questions, it is legitimate to say: I don’t know. The truth is that we don’t have all the answers. That is no reason for shame. It is a reality that can be gently shared with youngest of children. To say: “I don’t know” is not to admit ignorance, it is to assert a truth.
The very fact that we don’t have all the answers is one reason for faith. Faith does not mean we abandon reason; it means that reason is limited in its capacity to sort out all of life’s intricacies. Faith allows us to make sense of a world when reason fails us. It is only natural for people to try to understand the mysteries of this world. To tell a child “I don’t know” is a tribute to the truth and a logical introduction to: “but I believe. . .”
What do you believe? How do you make sense of a world that so often baffles and puzzles us? These are questions you must seek to answer yourself if you have any intention of answering your children. This is when your rabbi can be of great help. The rabbi knows that you may be asking these questions for the first time, but thousands before you have already asked those questions, and come up with some compelling answers.
IS IT PERMITTED TO CRY IN FRONT OF CHILDREN?
If it is OK to laugh in front of children, it is OK to cry. By showing children that we are unafraid of our emotions, we teach them to be more expressive of their own. Children may cry, too, when they see a parent cry. Those tears are therapeutic and should be seen as a genuine expression of grief.
Kids can turn on the laughter as quickly as they turn on the tears. Prolonged exposure to grief may be too difficult to bear; they will need to “lighten up” from time to time. When this happens, they should not be criticized for disrespectful behavior. Quite to the contrary, we ought to take a lesson from them. Jewish bereavement acknowledges the reality of loss, but seeks to lead the mourner out of the depths of grief. Mourning cannot be forever; the Jewish people are thus taught to choose life.
We must live fully, we must love completely, and eventually, we must leave our grief behind.
THE TRADITIONAL EXPRESSION OF CONSOLATION
HAMAKOM Y’NAHAYM ETKHEM B’TOKH SH’AR AVAYLAY TZIYON V’Y’RUSHALAYIM
MAY THE ETERNAL ONE COMFORT YOU AND ALL OTHERS WHO GRIEVE FOR ZION AND JERUSALEM