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The Physicality of Death: Burial and Mourning in Judaism

Flowers, though beautiful, will eventually die. A stone can symbolize the permanence of memory and will not die.” (4)

Before beginning, it is important to understand that Judaism is both vast and complicated. Every Jewish community fosters their own traditions and beliefs. While many traditions have been included here, there will always be ones that I have been unable to fully cover.


This blog post is also not meant to dive in depth into any particular part of the physical processes of death, but to briefly describe them.


If you feel that there are any particularly vital traditions (specific to your community or not) that I should have included, please feel free to contact me and I will update this accordingly.


The death of a loved one is a deeply personal experience and, ironically, is one of the most difficult parts of life. Within Judaism, it is vital that both the body of the deceased is properly cared for as well as the grieving family.


Death is believed to take place when the heart and lungs no longer beat. It is believed that the soul exits the body through the mouth. According to some, the moment at which the soul exits can be heard throughout the universe (21).


After the moment of death, there are varying belief systems regarding where the soul travels. Many believe the soul remains near its body for a period after death. For some, it is 3 days, while others describe seven. At the longest, it remains present until the decomposition of its corpse. The separation from the body is called chibbut ha'kever. During this period the "disembodied being undergoes a purification process, surrendering attachments to the physical realm. For those beings clinging to physical existence, the process of separation can be excruciatingly painful. The disembodied soul “wanders about the world and beholds the body which was once its home devoured by worms and suffering the judgment of the grave [hibbut ha-kever]” (Zohar II, 141b–142a)." (22) Many wrote about how the actions in ones life informed the pain level during their process of separation from the body.


Alternatively, prior to their transition to the next step, the soul stays near its body, primarily within the graveyard.


Preparation of the Body


There is a popular old wives tale that if you have a tattoo, you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The truth is: every Jewish cemetery, like any cemetery, has the right to choose who they do and do not bury. Jews with tattoos are routinely buried in Jewish cemeteries. A rabbi once said beautifully, “If you can eat a bacon cheeseburger on the day of your death and still be buried here, you should be able to be buried here with a tattoo”. Many young Jews are taught this superstition as a means of preventing them from getting tattoos. Others are told that the mortician will simply cut the tattoo from their body. Let me reassure you: that is simply untrue. Like every kind of cemetery, Jewish cemeteries are granted the ability to deny any person a burial. In theory, a Jewish cemetery could deny a person burial over a tattoo, just as a Christian or other religious cemetery could as well.


After a death, the preparation of the body commences as quickly as possible. The preparations are informed by the ideal of Kibud Ha-met, or honoring the deceased.


“Other core principles of Jewish belief include respect for the dead (even a dead person’s body), and care of their survivors. These concepts derive from the broader principles of honor due parents and other elders, the need to alleviate the suffering of others, and the basic equality of all before God. Customs concerning the preparation of the body for burial, the funeral, mourning, and many others still relate to these principles.” (2)


Dead bodies are seen as highly impure, both physically and spiritually. The Chevra Kadisha, or the Holy Society, refers to a group of people who prepare the body for burial. This is seen as a good, and righteous deed, as the dead cannot repay someone for their actions. This is known as Chesed Shel Emet (14).


The Chevra Kadisha prepares the body in lieu of a traditional mortician, though members of the society themselves may also be morticians. In many communities, the members are volunteers. The ultimate goal of the Chevra Kadisha is to protect the body until it is buried, ensure that it is treated with the utmost respect, and perform tahara, or purification before burial.


A fundamental principle of Jewish belief, the impurity of the dead, underpins many of the customs related to death and burial defined in halakhic law (for example, Numbers 19). Thus the importance of cemeteries: the dead must be separated by a distance from places of human habitation, and confined to areas for them alone. Similarly the Jewish custom of burying the dead very soon after death; this also relates to the body’s decay and the risk it poses to survivors. Perspectives on the relationship of living persons to the body of the dead have varied, especially between urban vs. rural communities, and in times and places where child mortality rates were especially and continuously high.” (2)


In days past, it fell upon the family to prepare the body for burial, however, as communities grew, it fell more and more into the communal sphere, leading to the forming of holy societies. In places where none exist, Jewish families may still prepare their dead for burial, though this is less common. Alternatively, members of another holy society may travel quickly in order to perform the mitzvah of preparing the body for burial.


In some communities, particularly Sefardic and Mizrahi ones, the body is circled seven times by the bereaved before being prepared for burial further as a means of spiritual protection(20).


The preparation includes the tahara, or cleansing of the body. All clothes are removed and the body is covered with a white sheet. The body is washed in cold water as tehillim, or psalms, are recited. The body is washed twice before dressed in the tachrichim, simple white garments of linen or muslin. In the modern day, Jews may also be buried in non-traditional clothes. It is mentioned in some literature that if a person's blood soaked into their clothing before burial, the washing is not completed so as to bury all of them, including their blood. (15).


“Jews are not buried in the clothes they wore during their lives. Rather, we are dressed in tachrichim, simple white burial garments. This reminds us that no matter how many material blessings one accumulates during a lifetime, we are all equal in death. Additionally, tachrichim remind us that when we leave this world for the next, we cannot take any of our earthly goods with us.”


Traditionally, Jewish men are buried with their tallit. Before doing so, the tzizit (fringes) are removed from the corners “as a symbol of how the death has effectively removed the Mitzvot responsibilities he carried during his lifetime” (15). In the modern day, people of all genders have been buried with tallitot.


Once the body is prepared, it must be watched over until the time of burial. Referred to as Shmira, or the guarding of the body. Individuals who perform Shmira are referred to as shomrim (plural) and shomer (singular). During this time, prayers, particularly tehillim, are recited. At no point should the body be left alone before burial, though the shomer does not need to physically stare at the body for the entirety of the time.


Two rabbinically defined mitzvot (commandments) drive communal involvement in Jewish funeral rituals: halvayat hamet (accompanying the dead [to the grave]) and nihum avelim (comforting the mourners), both encompassing numerous other mitzvot.” (12)

Jews are not traditionally embalmed or cremated.


Burial and Funeral Customs


Unlike some other cultures, Judaism encourages the burial within 24 hours, though in the modern day, it is often a few days in order to allow family members to come to the services. Jews are not traditionally buried on Shabbat or holidays.


“The funeral is held this soon after death to emphasize Jewish belief that the soul, wherein is the spark of life, immediately returns to God who gave it. So also, the body that has been the earthly abode of the soul should immediately be returned to the dust. It should not be the object of mournful veneration, for it was only the container-dwelling of the soul.” (7)


Traditionally, funerals have served as a physical representation of the transition of a person between the realm of the living and the afterlife. However, they were not the sole time of mourning for family, friends, and the community at large.


An important aspect of Jewish funerals is the emphasis on equity in death.


“The Meiri (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 27a), based on the above passage, makes a general statement that people should always be careful that poor people or others are not ashamed because of one’s actions. Wealthy people should therefore do the same as the poor in order not to embarrass those that do not have the means. In any event, the above passage from the Talmud makes it very apparent that Jewish funerals are supposed to be simple. At the very least, in death, no distinctions should be made between rich and poor. All should be buried in the same simple shroud and a plain wooden coffin, if a coffin is used. In Israel and some parts of the world, the custom is not to bury the dead in a casket. This, in order to literally fulfill the verse (Genesis 3:19): “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The reason for using wooden coffins is that Rabbi Levi (Midrash Genesis Rabbah) comments on the verse (Genesis 3:8): “…amongst the trees of the garden” that here we have a hint that the descendants of Adam and Eve should be buried in caskets of wood.” (10)


For many modern Jews, funerals have taken on a more western experience. While in antiquity Jewish processions may have included flutes, traditional Jewish funerals do not include music at all (6).


Parshitzky notes that the use of music serves to elevate the human spirit and that they also serve as a parallel to the religious blessings. Parshitzky also writes that in the new ceremonies there is a great deal of investment in the aesthetics of the ceremony, which meets the secular needs of Western values. This can be seen in a coffin, not in a shroud, using flowers instead of laying stones, organizing chairs in the cemetery, arranging shading, distributing water, using an amplification system and distributing pages with the order of the ceremony and the picture of the deceased. Rubin (1997)” (6)


Certain Jewish traditions contrast with typical Western grieving practices, which are highly influenced by Christianity. For example, Judaism does not encourage a public viewing of the body. One of the most striking differences is that the casket remains closed; some Jews believe it is done in order to keep the soul in the body. A traditional Jewish funeral will include a service and eulogy by the deceased's close family, friends, or rabbi. Following the services within the synagogue or chapel, a funeral procession carries the body to the graveyard.


“[T]he body is escorted to the graveyard, with close relatives and friends carrying it or accompanying it on foot at least part of the way into the cemetery. At the graveside, after the body is deposited in the grave, each person present will place three shovelfuls of dirt into the grave, starting with the immediate family. One person does this and then inserts the shovel into the ground, then the next person comes and does the same. The Kaddish and the prayer ’El Maleh Rachamim (“God Full of Mercies”) are recited at the graveside after burial. It is also a custom among observant Jews to wash their hands before leaving the cemetery because of the impurity implied in contact with a dead body or even by walking in a cemetery (Robinson 2008:187-189). Until the burial, everything was focused on honoring the deceased.” (7)


Historically, “[t]he entire community was expected to join in this procession, for the mitzvah of accompanying the dead to the grave supercedes all other mitzvot, including Torah study. This is especially true for a met mitzvah, a person who has died without family to care for him/her. This mitzvah is fulfilled once the grave is closed or filled.” (12).


Once at the grave site, it is customary for the recitation of prayers, the lowering of the body into the grave, a short ceremony, including the first recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and finally, the filling of the grave.


After the rabbi recites, “May ___go to their place in peace”, primary mourners are handed a trowel or shovel in order to begin filling the grave. Some customs require the first mourner to do so with the back of the shovel. Once the immediate family members have filled the grave, the shovel is handed to other funeral attendants until the grave is filled.


Some families have chosen to move away from the physical act of filling the grave and replace it with casting down flowers instead.


Mourners are encouraged to stay until every attendee has added to the grave, or at minimum, they have.


The funeral concludes with the chanting of a prayer, ’El Mal’ei Rahamim (God full of compassion),15 apparently of late medieval, kabbalistic origin, but today the standard prayer for the dead, recited on all formal occasions of remembrance.” (12)


Graveyard Traditions

In accordance with an ancient tradition, Jews bring little stones to place on the graves. The more pebbles are on the tomb, the more living is the memory of the deceased.” (3)

Perhaps the most famous of all Jewish death rituals is that of placing stones on graves instead of the more commonly seen flowers.


“There are many different stories cited as the historical origin of this tradition. It may trace back to the Biblical times when graves were simply marked with small stone mounds. Since gravestones were not utilized during this period, the mounds helped mark the location of the grave. In essence, the act of placing small stones on graves served as a way to preserve the gravesite so that as time passed, it could be found again.” (8)


Alternatively, it is believed that Israelites piled stones on graves in order to create clear markers of graves in order to ensure that no Kohen (high priest) would come in contact with the grave unknowingly (9).


Kohenim observe their own rules regarding dead bodies which will not be further discussed in this blog post.


Alternatively, “Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the New York Jewish Healing Center once said: “The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror – and it happens that this Hebrew word also means ‘bond.’ When we pray, the memorial El Maleh Rahamim prayer (and at other times), we ask that the deceased be ‘bound up in the bond of life’ – tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, and that the individual’s memory continues to live on in and through us.” (9)


In a mystical sense, “the Talmud... mentions that after a person dies, his or her soul continues to dwell in the grave where he or she was buried. Jews believed that placing the stones on a grave would keep the soul down in this world. Some people find comfort in this. Another interpretation suggests that the stones will keep demons and golems from getting into the graves.” (7)


This supernatural aspect is often denounced or denied in contemporary Jewish spaces which seek a more rationalistic approach to their mourning.


Rabbi Goldie Milgram explains further that, “[m]any trace the origins of leaving a stone to earlier sources given that stone is one of the metaphors for G*d in Torah and Jewish prayer. Moses sits on "the Rock," hits it in frustration and loss (Miriam the waterfinder his sister had just died), carves the tablets from It and is sheltered in It's womb-with-a-view cleft; Jacob's ladder arises from It, stoning was used for capital punishment, and bodies were covered with stones (a "gal," reveal(ation) for the bones to be later collected; and In the introduction to the Zohar we learn that a soul is cleaved from the Mountain; we have maoz tzur, tzur yisrael, and gorgeously tzur hevli b'eit tzara (G*d as our umbilical tether) and much more. The Tzur Hei HaOlamim is where the soul arises after having its embodied nutrients returned to the earth to nurture the cycle of life. The headstone symbolized that soul and the stone we leave is the stone symbolizing our own soul - all tethered together in mitzvah and metaphor.” (8)


“Special care is usually taken when selecting a stone to put on a loved one’s grave. It may be from a place of meaning to the deceased, or simply an interesting or attractive rock. Because there is no commandment behind placing a stone, this action serves as an opportunity for you to create your own, meaningful ritual.” (9)


The Stages of Mourning


Aninut


The first period of mourning, aninut, occurs up until the time of the funeral. During this period, mourners are not typically required to perform time bound mitzvot.


“The experience of pain at the death of a loved one is universal. Jewish tradition considers excessive mourning undesirable, and outlines a number of rituals on a specified schedule, to aid close family and friends of the dead to pass through their grief. At the time of death, a period of intense mourning (aninut) begins and lasts until the funeral. It is assumed the close family is too upset to interact with others; along with taking up the tasks of preparing the body and arranging the funeral, others will avoid expressing consoling words and making any significant show of their own grief. Visitors to the house will stay silent unless the mourners address them directly.” (2)


Also during this period, the action of kria is performed. For Ashkenazi communities, this happens before the commencement of the funeral services.


Jewish law defines a “primary mourner” as a parent, sibling, child, or spouse of the deceased. Traditionally, all primary mourners who are present at the moment of death perform the ritual of kri’ah (tearing of a garment) at this point, and continue to wear the torn clothing as mourners. Others who are present in the room at the moment of death also perform the ritual of kri’ah, even if they will not be mourners. This could include physicians, nurses, caretakers, visiting friends, relatives, or others. Primary mourners who are not present traditionally perform kri’ah either when they first learn of the death or at the time of the funeral service. (The common current practice is for primary mourners also to perform kri’ah at the funeral.) It is understood that those in the room have been present and have witnessed the moment of transition, and, therefore, have had a direct experience of being in the presence of death. It is customary that those who visit a cemetery wash their hands upon leaving the cemetery because they have been in the presence of death; all the more so for those who witness the actual moment of death. Even the death of a stranger is understood to affect a person, and being a witness to the death is understood to leave the observer vulnerable, at least for a short time. Kri’ah marks that vulnerability.” (5)


To note, in many Sefardic communities, kria is performed after the funeral when the primary mourners return home (17).