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Jewish Death Rituals

Kanika Khara
In Judaism, death is conceived as a natural part of the life cycle. There are many customs and traditions that dominates the process of death, burial and mourning in the Jewish customs.
Blu Greenberg, a Jewish writer wrote in her book, "Just as there is a way to live as a Jew, there is also a way to die and be buried as a Jew". Jewish distinctive and unique lifestyle is based on specific views of God and place of man in society and the universe.
Similarly, Jewish rituals imply unique attitudes toward God, nature and the problem of good and evil. These rituals are accompanied by a relative torrent of encoded verbal prayers, performance of funerary rituals in combination of silence, and free speech.
The result is the creation of a time that responds strongly to the emotions of the moment, dual transition of accompanying the deceased to the grave and comforting the mourners.


Since Judaism emphasises on the sanctity of life, they forbid euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The person dying should not be left alone, and should be treated with respect and love during his final moments.
It is a mitzvah (a commandment of Jewish Law) to be present at the side of the dying person. There are no deathbed confessions, and on the first hearing of the death, it is habitual to say, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, the true Judge."

Chverah Kadisha

In Judaism, the body is considered as a holy vessel to contain the soul, and is hence treated with reverence. After death, the first thing is to call the rabbi. Most of the synagogues help in making necessary funeral arrangements.
In many communities there is chverah kadisha, the sacred burial society that is traditionally responsible for the preparation and also for the burial. It washes the body thoroughly, recites prayers while performing this ritual cleansing.
Then the deceased is dressed in tachrichin, the traditional burial shroud, handmade of white linen or cotton. All Jews, rich or poor, are buried in tachrichin as a statement of the equality in death. But nowadays, some liberal communities allow the deceased to be dressed in regular clothing.


After the customary bathing and dressing, the deceased is placed in a casket made of wood. It is preferably made of pine wood with no metal parts. Since the body is to be returned to the Earth, nothing should be done to obstruct this process.
The casket should be plain and unadorned, again as a expression of the equality of death. It is a ritual to keep a small bag of earth or sand from Israel inside the casket. Once the body is laid to rest in the casket, it remains closed.
Judaism does not allow the viewing of the body. Since the body should not be left alone, normally a shomer or guard is kept by the family or synagogue to stand by the casket at all times.


The funeral should take place soon after the death, as it is believed that the soul has returned to God and so the body should be returned to the Earth as soon as possible. This also helps the bereaved to face the reality of death.
Burial is not allowed on a Shabbat. Before the funeral begins, the family performs keriah, a ritual of rending one's clothes. They make a small tear in their clothing. Keriah basically symbolizes the torn heart of the mourners.
At the funeral home, psalms and prayers are recited, which mainly includes Psalm 23, the memorial prayer El Maleh Rakhamin, the Mourner's Kaddish and an eulogy presented by a family member or the rabbi or a close friend.
After the service, friends who have been honored to carry the casket have to stop seven times along the way to the burial site. The number seven represents the word hevel (utter futility), which appears seven times in the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Everyone at the graveside puts three shovels of dirt into the grave and recites: "May he/she come to his/her place in peace". Instead of handling the shovel directly to the next mourner, they keep the shovel in the Earth, to avoid "passing on death." They wait till the casket is fully covered and wash their hands after leaving, as symbolic cleansing.


The period between death and burial is called aninut, during which the chief grievers are not obliged to observe the mitzvot. The chief grievers include the seven close relatives: father, mother, brother, son ,daughter and wife or husband. For them, the Jewish law marks different stages of mourning which help them to come to terms with their grief.


After the funeral, the mourners return home and are provided with a meal called the seudat havraah, the meal of consolation by friends and neighbors. The meal traditionally includes hard-boiled eggs, which are an ancient symbol of fertility and denote the continuation of life in the face of death.
The chief mourners enter into a period of bereavement called shiva, a seven-day period where the mourners do not leave the house and are provided with food by the family and neighbors.
This help them to form a minyan (a gathering of the minimal number of members of an organization to conduct business ) for the daily services so that they can recite Kaddish. For next eleven months they have to recite Kaddish thrice a day in the presence of a minyan.
Kaddish is a prayer of praise to God and is recited as an expression of faith in the face of death. During the seven days of shiva, the mourners can't use cosmetics, shave or cut their hair, as these are considered as the signs of vanity. They can't wear leather and indulge in love making.
The mirrors in the house are removed, turned towards the wall or covered with white sheets to avoid any form of vanity. They sit on low stools or on the floor to express grief. On the seventh day, the mourners venture out briefly but are accompanied by friends or relatives. After the shiva, they had to attend the synagogue service on the first Shabbat.


With the end of the shiva, the period of mourning called sheloshim starts and continues till the thirtieth day after the death. During this time, the mourners resume their work but avoid attending festive occasions like weddings and parties. Mourners are restricted from visiting the grave of the deceased, as it's important for them to get over their grief.


On the first death anniversary, the family assembles at the graveside for the dedication of a gravestone. This is an essential milestone for the mourners as it indicates a new beginning.
At the same time, a eulogy is given and Psalm 23, El Maleh Rakhamin and Kaddish are recited. The gravestone is concealed with a white linen cloth, which is taken off to "unveil" the stone.
The stone is engraved with the name of the deceased with the date of birth and death written in Hebrew or English. While visiting the gravestone, it is necessary to place a small stone on it. This is to show that the grave has been visited and the deceased is being remembered.

Yahrzeit and Yikzor

Every year on the death anniversary of the deceased, Yahrzeit is performed by the family. Yahrzeit is a day of remembering the deceased by lighting a special yahrzeit candle and reciting the Kaddish.
In addition to yahrzeit, the other occasions during the year when the deceased is remembered are: on Yom Kippur and the last day of the three pilgrim festivals (Shemini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot). The memorial prayers known as Yikzor prayers are said by the congregation at the synagogue.
Like many other Jewish practices, the death rituals exhibit a healthy practicality. These rituals demonstrate a distinctive way of reverence for man and respect for the dead.