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DEATH AND MOURNING



Death

Judaism teaches that death should be accepted with “resignation and trust” - as death is part of God’s 'master plan'. The soul ('neshama') is said to “return to God”. There is no Jewish doctrine concerning the afterlife, although the Talmud refers in passing to “a share in the world to come” and later writers refer to a resurrection of the dead at the end of days.

Judaism does not have a place for private undertakers arranging burials for profit. The functions of an undertaker are carried out by a voluntary communal organisation known as the 'Chevra Kadisha' ('holy society'). This organisation guides the bereaved, arranges for the preparation and care of the body and for the burial.

There are no 'pauper’s funerals' in Judaism. Rich and poor receive identical burials, and the higher fees paid by those can afford them contribute towards the cost of funerals for those who cannot. At the end of each year any surplus held by the Chevra Kadisha is distributed to charity.

Following death, the eyes of the deceased are closed, the body is placed in the prescribed position and covered with a sheet, and a lighted candle is placed near the head. The deceased is not left alone until the funeral.

The body is prepared for the funeral by volunteers who wash it according to ritual, and then wrap it in shrouds. A male is wrapped in his own prayer shawl ('tallit'). The body is then placed in a completely plain coffin. It is not the custom to bring flowers to a Jewish funeral.  

Burial

Jewish burials take place as soon as possible after death, as it is believed that the body is disrespected and desecrated if it remains unburied longer than is absolutely necessary. Burial therefore takes place on the day of death or the next day, unless it is a Sabbath or holy day. Orthodox Judaism requires burial, but Progressive Judaism also permits cremation. Before burial it is customary for the next-of-kin to tear or cut an outer garment as a sign of grief (Samuel II 1:11). This torn garment is worn for a week.

Before the funeral a service is held in a Jewish hall. The funeral service itself takes place at the graveside. It includes the mourner’s Kaddish, a sanctification in Aramaic read by the closest relatives (male if Orthodox); a plaintive chant, '"God Full of Mercy", sung by the officiant; and Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd” in Hebrew. Once the service is completed the mourners help fill in the grave with earth, so that the community participates in the burial.

Mourning

Mourning is a religious obligation for the close family - father/mother, husband/wife/ brother/sister, and son/daughter. Between the death and the burial the mourner is exempt from normal religious duties. Once the burial has taken place, the mourner observes a phase of mourning that lasts for seven days from the funeral. This period is called 'shiva' ('seven') and during the period the mourners stay at home, sit on low stools and refrain from wearing leather shoes. To enable them to say the Kaddish (the mourners’ prayer) a 'minyan' (group of 10 men in Orthodoxy or 10 people in progressive Judaism) is required. Friends and relatives of the deceased gather at the mourner’s home, to hold daily services in the morning and/or evening.

After the seven days the laws of mourning are relaxed, but mourners still practice a degree of restraint - keeping away from places of amusement, parties, etc. for 30 days from the funeral. If one is mourning a parent, these restrictions continue for 11 months. Mourners are also expected to say the Kaddish in synagogue for this period.

Any time after 30 days, but usually within a year, a tombstone is erected at the graveside and dedicated to the deceased. This ceremony is sometimes followed by the dedication of a memorial plaque in the deceased’s synagogue.

The Hebrew anniversary of the death is known as 'yahrzeit' ('yeartime'). It is traditional for the deceased's children to light a memorial candle, visit their parent’s grave and recite the Kaddish. This remembrance of the dead is important in Judaism, as it binds Jewish people together from generation to generation.

Much of the purpose of the Jewish laws of death and mourning is to comfort the bereaved and to show that the Jewish community is as united in death as in life.


 
 

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