Jewish Death and Dying
How do we best fulfill the mitzvah of honoring our dead?
K’vod haMeyt – “honoring the dead”
Congregation Shir Tikvah is served by a number of committees which make sure that all its communal functions are carried out effectively and in ways consonant with Jewish ethics and ideals. One of these committees was originally called the Cemetery Committee; its charge was to ascertain the necessary arrangements so that Congregation Shir Tikvah will be able to bury our dead when the time comes.
Over time the committee realized that their responsibility was broader than finding a suitable piece of ground for burial plots. The Jewish ethic of k’vod hameyt, honoring the dead, includes several important mitzvot related to caring for the dead, caring for mourners, and facilitating the participation of the community in the process.
The Cemetery Committee thus changed its name to the Kvod haMeyt committee. The Kvod haMeyt Committee presents this Yom Kippur discussion toward the end of offering our congregational community the opportunity to learn about the issues related to Jewish death and burial so that we can make the best decision regarding how to fulfill this mitzvah for our members.
Halvayat hameyt -הלוית המת – “accompanying the dead” to burial
The Moment of Death
When someone dies, those who hear the news traditionally recite the blessing:
ברוך אתה יהוה אלהינו מלך העולם דיין האמת
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheynu Melekh ha’Olam dayan ha’emet
Blessed are You Adonai our God, Power of the Universe, True Judge
Those who are most affected will probably only be able to gasp out the abbreviated version:
ברוך דיין האמת
Baruch Dayan HaEmet
Blessed is the True Judge
This is a statement of acceptance, not thanks. We affirm that this is the way the world works. People live and then they die. So will we.
Aninut - ענינות
The ones who are bereaved are in the most intense state of mourning between the death and the funeral/burial. They have no obligations under Jewish law at this time.
The rest of us are obligated to come to their aid in several ways:
From the moment when a person dies, Jewish tradition provides that they are not alone. Our ancestors believed that the soul hovered near the body between death and burial. It is a mitzvah, therefore, to take part in keeping the dead company until the burial. Volunteers take turns sitting by the body and reading psalms; this is called shemirah, ‘guarding’.
It is a mitzvah to help to prepare the body for interment. A specially trained group called the Hevra Kadisha, the “holy circle”, performs taharah (washes) and dresses the body(men attend men, women attend women); traditionally the body is wrapped in plain linen shrouds.
Death is something to which we all come equally; human equality is emphasized in a number of Jewish mitzvot related to death and burial. All should be buried in plain shrouds, in a plain wooden coffin, with a simple ceremony. Rabban Gamaliel II lived in a time when the custom was to make funerals very ostentatious, and the costs of burial grew so great that some people who could not afford to keep up would simply abandon the bodies of their dead. Gamaliel II, who was the leader of his community, prescribed a simple style of burial for himself – he was carried out in inexpensive linen shrouds. Therefore, all the people followed his example.
It is a mitzvah to keep the cost of funeral and burial low so that all may be buried in an equally respectable manner.
It is a mitzvah to bury the dead quickly. This is derived from the Torah: “His body shall not remain overnight…You shall surely bury him the same day.” (Deut. 21.23). In the Talmud the concept is developed:
If the relative keeps the body overnight to honor the deceased – to have his death made known in nearby towns, to bring professional women mourners for him, or to procure for him a coffin and shrouds – he violates no precept, for all he does is done for the honor of the deceased. (BT Sanhedrin 46b-47a)
It is a mitzvah to delay burial so as to allow for the donation of organs which may help to save another’s life or improve the quality of that life. In some cases it may also be a mitzvah to donate one’s body for scientific research, but the emotional costs to the mourners who must delay the closure of the burial for a year or more should be taken into consideration.
Embalming the dead is usually not necessary unless burial must be delayed.
Requirements of kvod hameyt prescribe only those embalming techniques which leave the body intact.
It is a mitzvah to be sensitive to the needs of the mourners, and to support them in their grief.
R. Simeon ben Eleazar said: do not try to comfort your friend while the body of your friend’s loved one yet lies unburied. (Mishnah Avot 4.18)
Attending a funeral is part of the mitzvah of halvayat hameyt, which is specified as one of the mitzvot which is so important that it is impossible to measure its importance. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that one may interrupt the study of Torah to attend a funeral procession. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: A man who sees a body on the way to burial and does not accompany it blasphemes his Creator.
Viewing the body is considered a breach of Jewish law since it cannot be an equally positive experience in all cases. Some people’s deaths leave them looking terrible, and so as not to upset their mourners, it was ruled that all dead shall be covered. In cases where someone needs to see a loved one in order to achieve a sense of psychological closure, a private visit with the dead is recommended, but the dead should never be made a public display.
It is a mitzvah to give a hesped, to speak of the dead at the funeral. The use of myrtles as decoration at a funeral is mentioned in the Talmud, but flowers are discouraged by tradition lest the practice lead to ostentation. It is a mitzvah to give Tzedakah in honor of the dead.
Respectful burial is a mitzvah incumbent upon the entire community in which a death takes place. Even a kohen, who is required to keep himself ritually pure and therefore may not come in contact with the dead, is obligated to ritually defile himself in order to tend to the needs of the dead if he comes upon an unburied body.
The purpose of burial is to return the body to the dust from which it came. A coffin is not traditionally used, but in places where it is used, it should be simple wood. Where grave liners are legally required, it is possible to ask for “kosher” liners, which include holes drilled in them so that there is no blocking of at least a small direct relationship between the dead and the earth.
In ancient days in the land of Israel burial took place in caves carved out of stone. After one year the bones would be collected and placed in an ossuary, hence the term “gathered to the ancestors”. When we went into exile, suddenly the ground and hills in which we buried our dead was no longer the Land of Israel; it was the land of non- Jewish peoples among whom we lived, often not easily. A Jewish cemetery became a small piece of Jewishly consecrated ground; one traditional practice is to put some earth from Israel into the grave of a Jew buried outside of Israel. Forced to live separately, we developed a custom of separate burial, among our own. The Jewish cemetery is considered holy, and in Hebrew is sometimes called a beit hayim, house of life, or beit olam, eternal home. Both of these names reflect traditional Jewish beliefs related to life after death. In premodern times, respect for Jewish dead required burial in a Jewish cemetery where the grave would not be vandalized or robbed.
In our own day, many cemeteries maintained by synagogues still do not permit the burial of non-Jews due to traditional separatism. A congregation which welcomes non- Jewish partners and spouses, however, does not maintain the ban on the burial of non-Jews, although usually there will be no non-Jewish burial rites in a Jewish cemetery.
Also due to beliefs about the afterlife (and possibly to differentiate ourselves from the customs of other ancient peoples), cremation was considered contrary to Jewish law. In modern times some people have felt that cremation was also too reminiscent of the fate of many of our people who died in the Shoah, the Holocaust. However, some survivors feel that out of respect for and solidarity with their family members who were murdered, they want to be cremated. It is a mitzvah to respect their wishes. Cremation may also be understood as an environmental and economic mitzvah, especially in areas in which the living do not have enough room, or where prices for body burial are unethically high.
After the funeral the mourners return to the home for the seven-day period known as sitting shivah, so called because they sit on low stools or on the ground as a sign of mourning. The word shivah simply means “seven”. It is a mitzvah to visit them, to bring them food, to talk with them or to be silent with them as they need, and to arrange prayer services in their home each evening so that they can say the mourner’s Kaddish.
The rest of the first thirty (“sheloshim” in Hebrew) days from the day of the funeral and burial are a time of beginning to return to life and life’s pursuits for the mourner. It is a mitzvah to remain sensitive to their needs and supportive of their grieving process.
Rav said: only after twelve months does one begin to forget the dead. (BT Berakhot 58b)
The year which is officially regarded as the extent of the mourning period ends with the first yarhzeit, the anniversary of the death. It is marked by the saying of Kaddish in the synagogue (which can be recited as often as the mourner wishes for one full year). It may also be marked by a gathering at the grave for the dedication of the grave marker (which perhaps used to take a full year to engrave; now it is ready much earlier). All mourning restrictions are lifted from the mourner at this time, but we know that mourning in some fashion will continue.
For further reading:
Maurice Lamm The Jewish Way in Death and Dying
Arnold M. Goodman A Plain Pine Box: A Return to Simple Jewish Funerals and Eternal Traditions
Ed. Jack Riemer Jewish Reflections on Death
Ann Brener, Jack Riemer Mourning and Mitzvah
Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish
A collection of links to current articles surrounding the issues of death and dying.
Here in Portland, Hesed Shel Emet ensures the mitzvah of making sure all are buried with dignity. article
The anti-Zionist Haredim, the Bedouin, and the Islamic Movement all have ‘been engaged in mobilizing the dead, real or imagined, as props in a political campaign against’ the State of Israel. article
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie decries the trend toward having mourners offer a eulogy and other comments at a funeral. article
Was the murder of Benny Hesse, the director of Haifa’s Ashkenazi hevra kadisha, because of a lack of burial land in the large cities? article
A Jewish-themed Mexican film about a wake. review
A Suicide In The Family: Mexican-Jewish director Mariana Chenillomines her grandparents’ story in ‘Nora’s Will.’ review
For your iPhone, iYarzheit which ‘converts the secular Gregorian calendar dates to Hebrew ones, and sends automatic reminders on approaching yarzheits. It is linked to the address book in the phone.’ article
The central body of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. is backing away from using brain death as the indicator of death (saying that it is neutral), and as a result, ‘Orthodox Jews may be denied organ transplants by the medical community since they would not be willing to be donors.’ And there is the risk of triggering anti-Semitism. article
Britain’s Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din recently issued a statement rejecting brain-stem death as meeting the halachic definition of death. article
But other rabbis, in an online statement, affirm that “brain stem death is a halachically operational definition of death.’ article 1
Famous Israeli soccer star Avi Cohen was determined to be brain dead, but his organ donor card was not honored after Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis lobbied family members to change their position and not honor Cohen’s wishes. article 1 article 2
A look at burial practices in the Second Temple period, including burials as land ownership designators, executed felons practice, preliminary burial & secondary burial, and burial rental. article
A severe shortage of Ashkenazi gravesites in Jerusalem has forced some local burial societies to adopt high-density burial methods, which some do not like, and the main Sephardi cemetery’s land reserves are expected to be exhausted in about another year and a half too. These include double burials (2 per grave); niche in a wall burials, and multistory above ground burials. article
Increasingly, families in Israel must pay extra for below-ground burials – insurance won’t cover it. article
The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities has said it ‘strongly objects’ to proposals to ‘double-deck’ graves. article
Chevra Kadishas can provide live webcasts of funerals, and coming soon: GPS coordinates for burial sites – valuable in a cemetery with over 220,000 graves. article
Jewish law mandates burying Jews and gentiles separately, but how strict must the separation be? And what of those who did not complete their conversion, or whose conversion was non-Orthodox? And what about military cemeteries? article
A woman hires a tutor to learn the prayer, and completes 11 months of saying Kaddish for her mother in not always friendly Orthodox synagogues in Israel. ‘It was a bittersweet moment.’ article
Special Issues in Kaddish: Study in honor of dead; women reciting Kaddish; Kaddish integrating mourners into communities; and hiring someone to say Kaddish. article
Having recited the Kaddish over 1,300 times, says Joshua Metzger, ‘I am tired, drained. The emotion is no longer present each time I utter the words … I no longer pause to seek out an image of my father to be omnipresent during the prayer. The prayer has evolved into a monotone expression, a chore.’ article
Eufaula, Alabama is down to its last Jewish family — so who will tend to the cemetery which dates to 1845 – and indeed, hundreds of Jewish cemeteries are believed to be at risk. article
A look at efforts, by students, to restore graves in Belarus. article
The general manager of a Jewish cemetery begins a full-page advertisement touting cremation with ‘Did you know … Jewish people are being cremated?’, and raises a stink. article