The traditions Jews observe when someone passes are deeply steeped in custom and hold significant meaning, although the actual execution of the ritual may vary depending on the customs followed by the family. These rituals are largely based on events from the Hebrew Bible.
Immediately After Death
Hearing of a loved one's death prompts grief, and Jewish culture has specific traditions to display grief in an outward and appropriate way.
Accompanying the Deceased
Jewish tradition specifies that the body of the deceased is not to be left alone. Friends and family are expected to stay with the body, or alternatively, a professional shomer can be assigned to stay with the body. The shomer is expected to stay awake and attentive until another person can stand watch, or until the time when the body can be buried.
When a Jewish person hears the news of someone passing away, they tear a piece of their clothing. This is referred to as "rending" the clothing and is also called keriah. Sometimes this ritual is not performed until the funeral when the family members tear a part of their clothing to symbolize the loss they are experiencing. In some ceremonies, the Rabbi gives a torn black ribbon to family members to pin on their clothing to signify the loss.
It is not appropriate for everyone to rend clothing. In some instances, such as a newly married couple, displaying grief in this way is inappropriate.
Preparation for Burial
The death ritual begins by washing the body with warm water. If the body was bleeding during the death, the clothing will be buried with the body. Men will be wrapped in their prayer shawl and women are wrapped in a burial shroud of white.
Purification of the Body
Once the body arrives at the synagogue, the chevra kadisha begin preparing the body by carefully washing it from head to toe. All clothing and jewelry are removed from the body. Water is used to purify the body and to signify a new transition for the deceased. Depending on the traditions of the deceased's synagogue, Torah readings and other prayers often take place during this stage, also called taharah.
Following the purification process, the body is wrapped in a white burial shroud. The tachrichim is a simple, unadorned piece of cloth that is wrapped securely around the body. Some people may make or purchase their tachrichim in advance of their death, otherwise it is usually obtained through the synagogue or chevra kadisha. Men are also traditionally buried in their prayer shawl after a small tear has been placed in it to signify that it will no longer be used.
The funeral is held at a synagogue. Eulogies can be delivered along with psalms read and a prayer given. In most cases, there may not be any flowers on display or songs sung to keep the ceremony as simple as possible.
In Israel, the deceased is usually buried simply in his own shrouds, but in the United States and many other countries, a simple wood coffin is used. This coffin is unembellished and has no other fabric besides the deceased's own shrouds and perhaps a simple white sheet.
The simplicity of the coffin helps ensure that the body can return to the earth through a natural process. Jewish funerals are always performed with the coffin lid closed, but family members may view the deceased before the lid is shut. After the coffin is closed, the chevra kadisha may read a psalm and ask the departed for forgiveness if they have done anything to offend him.
A funeral procession is performed after arriving at the cemetery. The pallbearers carry the casket, while funeral goers walk behind. The procession stops seven times during the procession, followed by the casket being lowered into the grave. Psalm 91 is read and the family tosses dirt into the grave. Tossing the dirt into the grave is a profoundly important part of the burial. It is one last favor done to the deceased - one that can never be paid back.
Funeral attendees may wash their hands immediately following the funeral, pouring water over each hand three times.
The immediate family of the deceased will mourn for seven days in a mourning period called Shiva. If the family has any mirrors in their home, they may be turned backward or covered so one cannot see one's reflection. Mourners may also sit on a special shiva bench. Members of the community bring food to the family sitting in shiva so the family can spend this time reminiscing and telling stories of their loved one to give comfort.
Other Special Laws and Rituals
- Autopsies are not performed unless the law requires. A Rabbi always oversees an autopsy.
- Jewish people can donate organs, as it is believed the organs will eventually be passed on.
- Cremation is not acceptable in the Jewish religion.
- Open caskets are discouraged.
- The tombstone of a Jewish person will have the Star of David etched into it.
- The 10 Commandments, lions, or a menorah can also be on the tombstone.
- Deceased loved ones are remembered on the anniversary of their death and during yizkor, or significant holidays.
There is more than one branch of Judaism, and varying levels by which each individual adheres to tradition. The rituals and traditions not only serve to honor beliefs, but also to help the mourner come to terms with the death of a loved one.