End of Life
No life cycle event is more emotionally challenging than the loss of a loved one. Judaism understands how difficult this time can be, and has given us a set of customs which serve to help an individual through such trying times.
An introduction to Jewish Burial Customs:
What happens to the Soul after death should make all the difference in your burial decisions.
When a person dies, the soul or neshama hovers around the body. This neshama is the essence of the person, the consciousness and totality. The thoughts, deeds, experiences and relationships. The body was its container, while it lasted, and the neshama, now on the way to the Eternal World, refuses to leave until the body is buried. A Jewish funeral is, therefore, most concerned with the feelings of the deceased, not only the feelings of the mourners. How we treat the body and how we behave around the body must reflect how we would act around the very person himself at this crucial moment.
Components of a Jewish Burial:
Shmira / The Vigil:
From the moment of death to the moment of burial the body is never left alone. Arrangements for a shomer or guard should can be made. These watchmen stay with the body day and night, reciting passages from the Book of Psalms. This lends great comfort to the neshama while it waits for the body’s burial and its ascent to the Eternal World.
Tahara / The Preparation:
The body leaves the world the way it entered. A newborn is immediately cleaned and washed when it enters the world. And so it is when a person leaves the world. After all, the soul is about to be reborn in a new spiritual world. We also believe that eventually the body will be resurrected in this world. A Tahara is performed by members of the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society). This is a complete cleansing and dressing of the body, performed according to Jewish Law and Custom. Prayers asking for the forgiveness of the deceased and the soul’s eternal peace are offered. While Tahara requires that the body be made as presentable as possible, embalming, cosmetizing or any other attempts to create a life-like appearance through artificial means are contrary to Jewish Law.
Tachrichim / The Shroud:
Every Jew is buried exactly alike. In a handmade, simple, perfectly clean, white linen shroud which includes a white linen hat, shirt, pants, shoes, coat and belt. Men are dressed in a tallis (prayer shawl). The shrouds have no pockets to accentuate the fact that no worldly belongings accompany him. The shrouds are modeled after the white uniform worn by the High Priest in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur when he stood before G-d asking for the needs of his family and the entire Jewish People. These shrouds are therefore especially appropriate because each and every neshama asks for the needs of his or her family on the final Judgement Day.
Aron / The Casket:
“For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” This biblical teaching is what guides us in selecting a casket. The casket must not be made of a material that slows down the body’s natural return to the elements. Metal caskets are therefore not permitted. Wood is the only material allowed and several holes are opened at the bottom to hasten the body’s return to the earth. When vaults are required, they too should be open at the bottom. Caskets remain closed because viewing the body is seen as disrespectful and undignified and is therefore forbidden according to Jewish Law.
Kevura B'karka / In-Groung Burial
The neshama’s return to heaven is dependent upon the body’s return to the ground. That’s what the Prophet means when he says, “The dust returns to the earth... and the spirit returns to G-d who gave it.” Jewish Law is, therefore, concerned with the immediacy of burial and the natural decomposition of the body. Mausoleums are forbidden since they retard the process of return to the earth. Cremation is also forbidden. The only acceptable burial is directly in the ground, with family members and friends helping to fill the grave completely until a mound is formed. No attempt to retard the body’s decomposition is permitted.
Jewish Mourning Customs:
Shiva: seven days during which mourners are visited at home by family and community, and participate in prayer services held at home.
Sheloshim: the first 30 days of mourning, during which mourners return to their normal routine but refrain from many customary pleasurable activities.
Aveilut: for those who have lost a parent, mourning for 11 months during which Kaddish is recited daily.
Unveiling: A tombstone may be erected or uncovered at any time; an “unveiling” is often done a year after the death.
Yahrzeit: The anniversary of death is observed each year. This date is on the Jewish calendar, and not the secular calendar, and they will rarely occur on the same day.
Yizkor: Special Memorial service. It is recited four times a year in the synagogue: on Yom Kippur , Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot. In Israel, it is recited on the combined Simchat Torah /Shemini Atzeret, the seventh day of Passover, and on the only day of Shavuot.
Yahrzeit Plaque: It is a widely observed Jewish tradition to commemorate the passing of a relative or loved one on the walls within a temple. All temples and many organizations devote an area within or near the sanctuary to memorializing those that have departed on a dedicated memorial wall. Nameplates or plaques are inscribed with the English and Hebrew names of the departed along with the date of death in both the standard and Hebrew calendar. Our Memorial is located within the sanctuary.
Our SOJC office staff can help with funeral arrangements, and our clergy are available to members to officiate at funerals and unveilings. We can also arrange, with our community, daily minyanim at a house of mourning as well as an annual yahrzeit minyan.