October 20, 2011
The mourning after
Each culture has rituals and customs surrounding death, and Judaism is no exception. Jewish tradition and the Jewish community provide mourners with structure and direction during the grieving process.
When a family member dies, those left behind often find themselves in a state of confusion when planning the memorial service, burial, reception and shivah. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino, says he tries to help families with planning and spiritual guidance.
“The fact that we are taken aback by a death means we are not prepared,” Feinstein said. “It’s my job to come in and facilitate a process, such as gathering the community to support the family.”
Jews have two obligations to a loved one who has died, Feinstein says. “We have an obligation to protect the dignity of their body and the dignity of their soul. The way we protect the body is by carefully guarding it and preparing it for burial. We bury the body in the earth with love and care,” he said.
A congregation might have a chevrah kadisha (burial society), a small group of volunteers responsible for the physical and spiritual preparation of the deceased according to Jewish law. In addition to washing, purifying and dressing the deceased, a shomer (guardian) will sit with a body until burial.
Jewish funerals take place soon after death, preferably within 24 hours. Funerals cannot take place on Shabbat or other holy days, and a funeral can be delayed for legal reasons, to transport the deceased or to allow close relatives to travel.
Funeral services can be held in a synagogue, a funeral home or at the gravesite. The service is usually brief and simple, including psalms, prayers and a eulogy. Unlike other religious traditions, Jewish funerals always feature a closed casket to protect the dignity of the deceased.
“We keep the casket closed because it is undignified to have people looking at you when you cannot look back,” Feinstein said.
The body should be buried in the ground in a plain, unadorned casket made of wood. Jewish law forbids cremation. “The body does not belong to us. It is a loan from God, and we need to bring it back with dignity,” Feinstein said.
Either before or after the funeral, close family will observe keriah — tearing clothing or a black ribbon. Parents should make a tear or cut on the left side, over the heart, while all other relatives tear on the right side.
The rites of mourning, Feinstein said, are like a toolbox that one uses to get through the grief. Some people, because of level of observance, use all of these tools, while others find a few of them to be comforting.
Shivah, for example, is the seven-day mourning period observed by immediate family. Mourners remain home from school or work, receive condolence calls and condolence meals, and refrain from entertainment. Observances include reciting Kaddish three times daily at home with a minyan, lighting a seven-day memorial candle, wearing the keriah (except during Shabbat) and covering the mirrors in the shivah house.
Once shivah ends, a mourner returns to work or school but refrains from entertainment and social activities during the first 30 days following the burial — a period known as shloshim. Kaddish is recited daily in synagogue.
A mourner who has lost a parent recites Kaddish daily for 11 months (Shanna) and refrains from public celebration for 12 months. These mourners also begin reciting Yizkor during Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
Each year on the anniversary of the death (yahrzeit), Kaddish is recited and it is customary to light a 24-hour yahrzeit candle, study and donate tzedakah.
When he counsels families after the death of a loved one, Feinstein said he likes to impart the notion that Jewish life and tradition is always about life — that it is life affirming.
“We need to remember that death is a part of life. We need to be reminded that every moment is precious and that we should not waste time,” he said.