At the end of our journey, how can we summarize and reflect on the enduring impact of our loved ones? Rabbi Koppell will craft a eulogy focusing on the legacy we come together to honor.
BARUKH DAYAN HAEMET- BLESSED IS THE RIGHTEOUS JUDGE
Judaism acknowledges that death is a part of life. When we lose a loved one who has lived a full life, it is a sad, but not necessarily a tragic event. When a person dies before their time, it is a blow to the entire community and a deep test of faith for those left behind. From the time of death until burial, the mourner is referred to by the term “avel”. The laws of mourning in Jewish tradition apply to an avel who is bereaved of a parent, child (God forbid), sibling or spouse. A person who is in mourning is relieved of all religious obligations until after the funeral service.
Preparation of the Body
Prior to the burial, the body is ritually washed in a loving and respectful ceremony known as “Tahara”, and clothed in a garment made of linen or flax. If it was the custom of the individual to wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, in life, then they are customarily wrapped in a tallit as well. One of the fringes, the tzitzit, will be cut off, representing the fact that the person is no longer subject to the mitzvot, the commandments. Every Jew is equal in death, therefore we all wear the same garment. The shrouds, or, takhritim, have no pockets, expressing the fact that we cannot take anything with us into the next life. A shomer, a guardian, stays with the body until the time of burial. This person will recite psalms as they watch over the individual.
In general, Judaism does not approve of autopsies. Our tradition expresses a great reverence for the body as the image of God. However, when required by civil law, it is acceptable to consent to an autopsy, with the proviso that the body should be returned to the family for burial as soon as possible.
At one time organ donation was very much of an experimental procedure, and Jewish tradition frowned upon the desecration of the body with little hope for any life saving value. As medical technology has advanced, rabbis from Reform to Orthodox have agreed that the value of saving a life is preeminent, and organ donation should be encouraged as a true mitzva.
The traditional Jewish coffin is a simple and plain wooden box, made of pine or other readily available wood. Wood is preferred as it does not interfere with the natural process of the body. Any elaboration is discouraged. Metal handles, screws and nails are permissible.
The Jewish way is burial in the ground. We come from the earth, we return to the earth. Entombment above the ground has become more common in recent years, but in-ground burial remains the traditional standard. Cremation is strongly discouraged, particularly due to sensitivity in the post-Holocaust era. In the event of cremation, the Rabbi will officiate at a funeral or memorial service, but not at the interment of the cremains.
Timing of the Funeral Service
In earliest times, the funeral was held on the day of death. In deference to family members who may need to travel a significant distance, it is acceptable to delay the burial for a day or two. Funerals are not held on the Sabbath or on many holidays. It is important to confirm the time of burial with the Rabbi as soon as possible to ensure her availability.
A closed coffin is the standard at Jewish services. Rather than flowers, the family designates a charitable organization to receive donations in memory of the deceased. Friends and family members are encouraged to attend, as well as to coordinate any needs of the mourners. The service will consist of readings from Psalms, Mourner’s Kaddish, El Maley Rakhamim and a eulogy. A number of close friends/family may be asked to serve as pall bearers as the coffin is borne to the grave site.
In ancient times, mourners tore their flesh as an expression of grief. Judaism, with its tremendous respect for the body, preferred the tearing of clothing. In non-Orthodox practice, a black ribbon is attached to the clothing, and it is torn prior to the start of the service. The ribbon is worn on the right side for all losses other than that of parents. This is an outward expression of the feeling that we are torn up on the inside.
At the conclusion of the service, the coffin is lowered into the grave. Participants are offered the opportunity to place a handful of earth into the grave, so that they may symbolically participate in the mitzva of burying the dead.
The family will observe shiva, the seven days of mourning, at the home of the deceased or a close family member. It is customary that friends prepare the first meal to be eaten by the family following the funeral service. A pitcher of water and basin should be placed outside the front door, so that those returning from the cemetery can wash their hands prior to entering the home. Hard boiled eggs and lentils are traditional foods that are eaten at this time; their round shape reminds us of the continuity of life.
For the first seven days following the funeral, including the day of burial, immediate family members remain at home to observe a time of mourning. It is a mitzva to visit the home during this time. Mirrors in the home are covered during this time; this is not a time when we are concerned about our physical appearance. The door should be left unlocked so that visitors can enter without ringing the doorbell. Those who come to provide comfort need not initiate conversation, but should wait for a cue from the family members. It is traditional to bring food for the mourners, but it is preferable to visit even with no food than not to visit at all. Services are customarily held in the home each evening, so that the family can say kaddish. Mourning is suspended on the Sabbath.
The Year Ahead
Within a year of the death, a headstone should be erected at the burial site. This is usually dedicated with an unveiling ceremony. The family meets together for this occasion. The Rabbi may be asked to preside over this ceremony.
The anniversary of the death, or yahrtzeit, is observed annually by lighting a 24 hour candle and recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. The yahrtzeit is calculated according to the Hebrew date.
A special memorial or Yizkor service is held on the synagogue four times during the year: on the last day of Pesakh, Shavuot and Sukkot, and on Yom Kippur.
Within the Ashkenazi community, it is customary to name a child after the deceased loved one.
Judaism has evolved this intricate system over thousands of years to assist the mourner in the process of re-entry, re-identification and re-establishment of a relationship with the world and a self left forever altered by loss. Each person must find his or her own way through the stages of mourning. It is important that we all we there for one another as we adjust to a new reality in which nothing is ever quite the same.
HaMakom yinakhem etkhem b’tokh sha’ar avelei Tzion v’Yerushalayim
May the Holy One comfort you among all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem.