There is an old saying: “you can’t evade death and taxes.” We have accountants, attorneys and financial planners to give us advice on taxes. Losing a loved one is a rare occasion in life. It can come after a long illness that can tax one’s emotional limits. We may lack the knowledge and tools to deal with such a crisis.
Judaism offers a framework to help us through this trying period. There are laws and customs rooted in Jewish tradition that serve as avenues to deal with loss and grief. They teach us how to act with dignity and respect at this crucial moment in life. These principles are based on the Torah, rooted in Divine instruction given to the Jewish people at Sinai and also have important psychological and spiritual values.
Judaism does not view death as the end of life. Rather, it is a transition from one dimension to another. Human beings are a fusion of body and soul, physical and spiritual. Death is the separation. The soul moves on to a spiritual existence.
The body is a vessel for the soul. It is imbued with holiness. It must be treated with great dignity. A person must be interred in the ground. Cremation is absolutely forbidden. We refrain from any autopsies except in a case where there is a direct chance of saving another person’s life. (It is imperative to inform the coroner of Jewish religious belief on this issue and urge him or her to refrain from autopsies.)
Jewish tradition teaches us to arrange a funeral as soon as possible; the most optimum is the same day as passing. If not the next day is best. We may delay a day or so for immediate relatives. It is not respectful to the deceased if we wait too long. The Kabbalah teaches that the soul lingers until the burial. A few years ago I had a funeral, and a young relative in college told me, “Well, I have class this week; it’s not convenient.” I told him to miss a day and come right away.
The burial itself is simple. We recite a few Psalms, a memorial prayer and Kaddish after the interment. The mourners tear a garment either when they hear of the passing or at the funeral. We should tear our actual garment as a symbol of our deep grief; the ribbons some use are not appropriate. The casket should be a simple wooden one, and the body prepared with a Taharah, ritual washing and shrouds. We do not view the body. It is a great mitzvah to fully cover the grave.
Afterwards the immediate family says Kaddish. Lately I have witnessed a strange new custom at some funerals: everyone says Kaddish. The only ones who should recite the Kaddish are the family members; others should answer amen. As the mourners exit the cemetery, they walk between two rows of friends as a symbol of our collective grief, and we console the mourners.
Shivah lasts seven days. We begin the day of the funeral. It is preferable to have services in the home, and friends and family visit and console the mourners. Kaddish is said for eleven months. If you cannot say it daily, you can arrange for someone to recite it. Losing a loved is a difficult emotional loss. The Shivah and the traditions of mourning provide us with a psychological framework to cope with loss. They help us to deal with grief and provide a path back to life and how to memorialize a loved one.
You can find more information on mourning at OCJewish.com/mourning.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org