- Category: Death Customs and Practices
For Judaism, life is the supreme value, the great privilege, the precious opportunity, according to Rabbi Raymond Apple writing for the J-News, Digital Jewish news daily for Australia and New Zealand.
- People should not speculate too much about death and the after-life. These matters can be left to God.
- Death is not superior to life. Every moment on earth should be savoured.
- Life must not be shortened, even by a moment. Judaism is adamant that one may not actively hasten death, but it recognises the morality of permitting people to die.
PROCEDURES UPON A JEWISH DEATH
1. Upon death the eyes of the deceased are closed, the arms laid by their side, any tubes and medical equipment are removed, and the body is covered by a plain sheet.
A rabbi does not have to be there to carry out last rites, but as soon as possible the Jewish burial society, the Chevra Kadisha, should be informed and they then take charge of funeral arrangements.
The Chevra Kadisha is a voluntary organisation which reverently and carefully carries out the traditional Jewish procedures. So seriously does it take its task that once a year its members fast in atonement for any unwitting act of disrespect to the dead.
2. The traditional Jewish way of disposing of the dead is by burial in the earth. Judaism does not permit cremation. It regards it as an insult to God; the body is His, not ours, and no-one may injure, mutilate, or destroy a body, in life or after death. Orthodox rabbis will not officiate at a cremation, nor will the Chevra Kadisha organise one.
The funeral should be as soon as possible after death; delaying funerals is not regarded as respectful except in special cases when, for instance, a relative needs time to arrive from overseas or there is some other pressing emergency.
3. Generally, Judaism does not permit post-mortems. Once again the principle is that the body should be buried as soon as possible and not be mutilated or treated disrespectfully.
A post-mortem is countenanced only where the law of the country insists upon it or where it would clearly and materially assist medical science to find a cure for other patients. In all cases a rabbi must be consulted.
4. Where a Jewish person dies in a place where no synagogue or Jewish community exists, the major synagogue in the nearest capital city should be contacted for advice.
5. The mourners make a “k’riah”, a tear in their garments, at the moment of death or prior to the funeral. This symbolises the painful tear which the occasion has made in one’s heart. For a parent the tear is on the left-hand side, and on the right-hand side for other close relatives.
6. The funeral service consists of prayers, psalms and readings, and when the coffin is lowered the relatives and friends present in turn take a spade and put three spadefuls of earth in the grave. This emphasises the reality, the finality, of death.
The spade is not passed directly from one to another, as if to show that such tasks are performed with deep reluctance and resignation.
7. At the end of the ceremony, and thereafter each day for eleven months, Kaddish (“Sanctification”) is recited at congregational worship.
Kaddish is said by sons; if there are no sons, it is recited by a male relative or friend. Women are not obligated but are permitted to say Kaddish.
Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but an affirmation, at the moment when it is hardest to utter it, of God’s holiness and greatness, and a prayer that His kingdom may come.
It has been said of the Kaddish, “To know that when thou diest, the earth falling on thy head will not cover thee entirely; to know that there remain behind those who, whenever they may be on this wide earth, whether they may be poor or rich, will send this prayer after thee… what more satisfying knowledge canst thou ever hope for?” (L Kornbert).
8. Neighbours or friends serve the mourners their first meal on returning home from the funeral. This simple meal contains hard-boiled eggs, reminiscent of the wheel of life that never ceases to turn.
9. Probably unique to Judaism is the institution of “shivah”, the first week of mourning when one stays home and finds comfort in the visits of family and friends who join each day in the services held in the house (except for the Sabbath, when mourners attend the synagogue).
During the shivah, the mourners sit on low seats or even on the floor; mirrors in the house are covered, as this is not a time to be concerned with one’s personal appearance; and a memorial candle is kept burning.
The mourners do not wear leather shoes or shave, since both are ways of looking and feeling physically comfortable and one is too grief-stricken for that.
10. The period of mourning covers three stages of grief recovery: the “shivah”; the “sh’loshim” or first thirty days when one may resume going to work but not attend any form of entertainment; and the “avelut”, the twelve months observed for a parent when one still does not take part in any form of entertainment.
By the end of the year a person is expected to have recovered to a certain point, though things will never be fully the same again. Judaism is not sympathetic to the Queen Victoria syndrome of perpetual grief with its refusal to accept that life has anything left to offer.
11. A tombstone is erected in memory of the departed to mark their last resting place, though Judaism also encourages living memorials in terms of deeds inspired by the thought of the deceased.
There is no strict law as to when to erect the tombstone; in Israel it is usually done after the shivah or sh’loshim, and elsewhere at about the end of the year of mourning.
12. Each year on the anniversary of death, memorial prayers and Kaddish are said, often accompanied by charitable donations and sometimes by fasting.
In the synagogue, memorial prayers are also recited on four of the religious festivals that take place each year. These memorial prayers contain both an occasion for private remembrance and also prayers for martyrs, especially the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
4,000 years of learning the art of living, and dying, are behind this range of rituals designed to help the mourner work through the pain and grief.
In themselves the rituals do not answer the age-old anguished questions that give the bereaved no rest, make them so angry and threaten to destroy their faith.
Yet those who have observed this pattern of observances testify that it has helped them to express their grief, accept the reality of their situation, and integrate their bereavement – doubts and questions and all – into a reshaped set of values, views and ways of living.
A psychiatrist has said, “I consider the Jewish traditional laws and ceremonies surrounding bereavement of such psychological therapeutic value that I would even recommend them to the Christian religion”.
Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.