Just as there is a way to "live as a Jew", so is there a way to "die and be buried as a Jew". Judaism is replete with rituals for each of the life-cycle events and death is no exception.
When a loved one dies, Jewish law helps those close to the deceased by providing a series of rituals that guide the survivors through the mourning process and back into everyday life. These centuries-old traditions offer solace and help to work through the long journey of grief.
Jewish funerals honor the dignity of the deceased and provide consolation and comfort to the survivors. Many families choose to practice these rituals in different ways. A rabbi or funeral director can guide you in your observance of these funeral and mourning customs.
In our communities, groups of volunteers have formed Chevra Kaddishas (sacred societies). The Chevra is responsible for taking care of the deceased before burial. It is considered the "ultimate" mitzvah, as it is impossible for the deceased to repay it. The Chevra performs the following functions:
Tahara - This is the ritual washing and purification of the body in preparation for burial. Prayers and psalms are recited. In death as in life, the importance of preserving modesty is maintained. Men perform taharas on men and women perform taharas on women. The body is then dressed in tachrichim and often a small amount of eretz Yisroael (Israeli earth) is placed under the head.
Tachrichim - This is the traditional muslin or linen burial garment. The simple garment symbolizes that all are equal in the eyes of their Creator. Many men and women are buried in their tallit (prayer shawl). When wearing a tallit, one of the tzitzit (long corner fringe) is cut off, so that is no longer fit for ritual use. This also signifies that the deceased is no longer responsible for doing the mitzvot.
Sh'mirah - Traditionally, the Jewish body is not left alone after death and before burial. Sh'mirah can be translated as watching or guarding. A shomer is the "watchman" who stays with the body and recites selected psalms.
K'riah - This is the Hebrew word for "tear." It refers to the rending of one's clothing to show mourning. A black k'riah ribbon is often used to symbolize the rending of clothing as the symbol of profound grief felt by the immediate family (parent, child, spouse or sibling). K'riah is usually performed at the funeral while standing to symbolize strength in the face of grief. The cut (in either the clothing or the ribbon) is made on the left side, closest to the heart when mourning the loss of a parent. The loss of a parent holds a special place in Jewish law and tradition and the responsibilities of mourning a parent are greater than any other. The tearing of the clothing or ribbon is done on the right side when mourning other immediate family relatives.
Aron - A traditional casket that is constructed entirely of wood. Jewish law requires the body to return to earth as soon as possible. Wood expedites this process. Often holes are drilled in the bottom of the casket to hasten decomposition and the body's return to earth. This casket cannot be manufactured on Shabbat and should be blessed by a rabbi before it leaves the manufacturing facility. Many families today choose to break with this tradition and choose to consult with a rabbi or funeral director about making a casket selection.
K'vurah - This is the actual burial in the ground, or filling in the grave with earth. To participate in filling the grave is a mitzvah. It is considered even more of a mitzvah to assist filling in the grave because the act of kindness can never be repaid.
Shiva - Shiva is the first and deepest stage of mourning. Shiva is the Hebrew word for seven and therefore shiva is observed for seven days following the burial. The first day of shiva is the day of the burial. Shiva ends after morning prayers (shacharit) are recited on the seventh day.
During shiva, members of the immediate family remain inside and are comforted by visitors making condolence calls. Shiva is usually observed in the home of the deceased or a close relative. Upon returning from the cemetery, mourners traditionally eat a meal of condolence. This includes eggs, symbolizing life and fertility, and bread, symbolizing life and sustenance. This meal and others are usually provided by friends performing a mitzvah, thereby freeing up the family from their usual responsibilities.
Traditionally, mirrors are covered in a shiva house signifying that mourners have withdrawn from worldly concerns such as appearance. Tradition also dictates that mourners sit on benches or sit on chairs lower than those of the visitors. A mourner does not rise to greet the visitor. The visitors are expected to console the mourner and to let the mourner speak first. In some homes, these traditions are not followed or are followed symbolically.
The timing of shiva is altered by Shabbat and holidays. Shabbat is counted as one of the days of shiva, however the rituals of shiva are not observed on Shabbat. The torn garment or ribbon is not typically worn on Shabbat. Those who attend synagogue will leave the house to attend prayers on Shabbat during shiva. Resumption of mourning practices resumes at nightfall Saturday when Shabbat ends. The timing of shivah when there is a holiday may vary. Shiva may end the night before (erev) the holiday begins and it would be as if the full seven days of shiva had been observed. It is best to consult a rabbi if a burial occurs near a holiday.
At the end of shiva the mourners may walk once around their block. This symbolizes that they are ready to resume daily life. This is the end of the first stage of mourning.
Sh'loshim - The first 30 days after the burial including shiva, comprise the stage of Jewish mourning called Sh'loshim. This is the end of the mourning period for anyone but one's parents. Children are obligated to mourn their parents for eleven months. Sh'loshim is less restrictive than shiva. While mourners do not attend social gatherings, they may now say Kaddish daily in a synagogue instead of having a minion at home.
Yahrzeit - Yarhzeit marks the anniversary of the death in accordance with the Jewish calendar. A yarhzeit candle is lit at sunset the night before the yarhzeit date and kept lit throughout the following day until it burns out. Kaddish is recited in synagogue during services.
Yizkor - The memorial prayer of Yizkor is said four times a year during Temple services. It is said on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzereth, Pesach and Shavuoth. It is not said during the first year of mourning. During the first year of mourning, the mourner should recite "Yizkor" with the congregation, because that is when the need of the deceased for atonement and mercy is greatest. If, however, the mourner feels that he or she could not restrain himself or herself from loud and uncontrolled expressions of grief, such as would disturb the other congregants, it is acceptable to leave the synagogue during the first year.
The Unveiling Ceremony - The unveiling is the formal dedication of the headstone. It is customary for the unveiling to take place 12 months after the funeral as a way to mark the end of the formal mourning period. However, the unveiling may take place any time after sh'loshim.