We are delighted to kick off our series on diverse cultural beliefs and practices on death and dying with an article by Rabbi Susan Shamash. It is hoped this series of articles will help build understanding and inclusion of the many faith and cultural communities in BC.
Jewish End of Life Practices – by Rabbi Susan Shamash
There are a wealth of practices in Jewish traditions for end of life. This is a brief summary of the major ones. For further information, visit https://kavodvnichum.org/.
When death is imminent, it is traditional to recite a confession (Vidui) either by or for the person who is in the process of dying. There are many variations in wording and customs, but all involve the notion of death as atonement for sin. It “… provides an opportunity to unburden a heavy heart, return to a sense of hope for wholeness, and to let go of life peacefully.” The final words the dying person says or are said on their behalf are the Shema, the Jewish foundational affirmation of faith.
At the time of death, primary mourners, i.e. parent, sibling, child, spouse, who are present perform the ritual of kri’ah (tearing of a garment). Primary mourners who aren’t present perform kri’ah either when they learn of the death or at the time of the funeral service. It is common practice now for the primary mourners also to perform kri’ah at the funeral.
Once the person dies, the local Jewish Burial Society (Chevra Kadisha) is called. They take care of the rest of the arrangements, which are exactly the same for all Jews. Between death and burial, the body is treated with the utmost of respect and is never left alone. This is called shmirah, a physical and spiritual watching or guarding, keeping the deceased company. Psalms are read, songs are sung, words of comfort are said, to help the soul move on. There is also a water purification ritual called taharah in which a group of people physically wash and dress the body in traditional shrouds or burial garments (tachrichim) while reciting a liturgy. The body is then placed in a plain biodegradable casket. Traditionally there is no visitation or viewing of the body.
The funeral takes place soon after death, ideally within 24 hours, but no later than within three days. The Jewish funeral is known for its simplicity. Psalms are recited, especially Psalms 19 and 23, and the prayer God Who is Full of Compassion is chanted. The deceased is honoured through the eulogy and the liturgy and then is placed in the earth. Everyone present is invited to place earth lovingly on the casket. In some communities, the grave is filled in completely. The funeral ends with the primary mourners reciting the Mourners’ Kaddish, in which they affirm God’s greatness even as their faith is being tested by their loss. Some believe the Mourners’ Kaddish is also said for the benefit of the soul of the deceased to help facilitate her journey in the afterlife.
Official mourning now begins. Following the funeral, those gathered at the grave form two lines through which the mourners pass on their way back to their cars and recite traditional words of comfort: “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” In this way the community shows that it shares the mourners’ grief and offers support. It is traditional to wash your hands as you leave a cemetery to mark the transition from death back to life.
After the burial, it is customary for the community to provide a meal of condolence to the primary mourners. Traditionally, round foods are included, such as hard-boiled eggs, bagels, and lentils, to symbolize the continuous cycle of life. Sharing a meal is also life-affirming.
Judaism offers a carefully structured path for gradual reentry into life. Beginning immediately after the burial, the primary mourners “sit shiva”, an intense mourning period lasting seven days during which they do nothing but mourn, usually in the home of the person who died. They don’t work, go to school, shop, cook, listen to music, watch TV, use any devices, or even leave the house unnecessarily. Their needs are met by the community who provide meals, for example. People gather in the shiva home for daily prayer services so the mourners may recite the Mourners’ Kaddish together and be surrounded by caring community. At the end of the seven days, the primary mourners go for a walk around the block to symbolize their transition back into the world.
The next stage of mourning is shloshim, Hebrew for 30 days (following the burial), a transitional period during which mourners return to work or school, but not entirely to the world. Some people mark the conclusion of shloshim with a memorial service. After shloshim, mourners are encouraged to return to life while honouring their dead by saying the Mourners’ Kaddish daily. At some point after shloshim, usually around 11 months, a monument or marker is placed on the grave and “unveiled” in a short service. The primary mourners stop saying the Mourners’ Kaddish daily 11 months after the death. Thereafter, they light a 24 hour memorial candle and recite the Mourners’ Kaddish each year on the anniversary of the deceased’s death, their yahrzeit.
As a final note, most streams of Judaism today don’t support cremation, preferring ground burial as the most respectful way to honour the dead. At the end of the 19th century, the primary reason for not cremating was because of the need to be whole at the time of resurrection of the body. In modern times, the avoidance is based on the concept of human dignity and a prohibition against dishonouring or desecrating the body, even after death. The Holocaust, not surprisingly, had a profound effect on this conversation, making it even more poignant.
- Alison Jordan, https://sites.google.com/site/viduivariations/, accessed April 23, 2023.
- Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, only Adonai (or Adonai is One).
Susan Shamash was ordained as a Rabbi by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. As a progressive, independent rabbi, she is passionate about “open tent” Judaism, offering interfaith lifecycle event officiation in greater Vancouver. Rabbi Susan is also an active member of Or Shalom Synagogue where she is a regular davenen (prayer) leader on Shabbat, the Festivals, and the High Holidays.