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Judaism and Death
mourning rituals both honor the dead and provide a structure for the mourning
process. When we are most desperate for direction and solace, the tradition
is ready with a step by step guide to help us through the most difficult and
painful moments of our lives.
Stages of Mourning
As psychologists have noted,
grieving is a process. Jewish tradition recognizes several stages of mourning,
moving from total absorption in grief, to complete re-engagement in everyday
Each stage has specific mourning practices, enumerated in the next section.
At the end of the first year the mourning period comes to a close. Beyond these
initial periods of mourning, there are yearly opportunities built into the calendar
for remembering those we lost. Yahrzeit, the anniversary of death and
Yizkor (remembrance), a liturgical piece recited on certain holidays, are both
opportunities to remember and mourn the loved one.
Suspending daily routine
Death overshadows nearly everything else. The tradition refers to this period as a time when "the dead lies before one." Recognizing this otherworldly state, the tradition suspends the mourner's responsibility for prayer and other daily mitzvot, acknowledging the depth of immediate grief and allowing the needs of the dead to be attended to.
Honoring the dead
From the moment of death until burial the body is constantly attended. Tradition holds that at this time the soul of the deceased is in a painfully confused state, hovering over the body it recently inhabited. It has neither left this world, nor has it yet entered the world to come. Members of the community take turns sitting with the body, reciting psalms and other prayers to comfort the soul of the deceased.
Purifying the body
The human body is considered a holy vessel in Jewish tradition. Thus, it is a great mitzvah to participate in washing the body and sanctifying it before burial. This mitzvah is performed by the Hevrah Kadisha, a voluntary group, rather than the actual family members. The body is washed limb by limb and water is poured onto the entire body for purification. The body is then dressed in white linen or cotton.
Dust to dust:
The principle "from dust you come and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:19) dictates many burial customs. Consequently, the body is dressed in a shroud of natural fiber and buried in a coffin of plain wood, which should all decompose at about the same rate, so as not to impede the process of returning to the earth. (In Israel, no coffin whatsoever is used; bodies are placed directly in the soil). Judaism does not permit embalming or any measures that preserve the body or the coffin.
A broken heart:
When immediate family members of the deceased enter the funeral home, their first act is to tear their shirts over the heart. This ripping is a concrete expression of heartbreak. It allows mourners to physically express what words cannot the depth of their anguish at this time.
When the body is lowered into the grave, family members shovel earth onto the coffin. This encourages the mourners to accept the reality of death and allows them to personally assist the body of their loved one into the ground.
This stage begins upon returning home from the cemetery.
The first meal
Following the funeral, the mourner returns home and eats a "meal of condolence," symbolizing the beginning of the mourner's emergence from a kind of death state. Still in a deep state of grief, the mourner slowly begins to return to life by attending to his or her bodily needs.
This meal should be prepared by neighbors or other members of the community. It often consists of bread and hard boiled eggs. Eggs represent the circle of life, the cycle of birth and death. Ashes are often sprinkled on the egg to represent grief and loss.
Covering the mirrors
Man was created in God's image. With a single death, the very image of God is diminished and a reflection of the Divine Image is eclipsed. To symbolize this eclipse, the mirrors in a house of mourning are covered.
Sitting on the earth
It is a custom for mourners to sit on low stools, or on the floor. This indicates the "low state" of the mourner. Visitors must be careful to sit in such a way that their heads are not level with, nor below, the mourner's.
A shiva call
When a visitor pays a shiva call, he should enter quietly and sit near the mourner. It is customary to wait for the mourner to speak, rather than initiate conversation. Traditionally, conversation should provide an opportunity to celebrate the deceased. It is important to be attuned to the mourner's needs, and follow his lead.
Kaddish, a special prayer said by mourners, is said at services. A minyan (quorum of ten) will generally convene at the mourner's home to help the mourner fulfill this mitzvah.
Shloshim represents a further step towards reclamation of the mourner's life.
Following shiva, there are certain mourning rules that apply for the remainder of the 30 days after the burial. One continues to recite Kaddish with a minyan, at regular prayer times for a spouse, child, or sibling. (Kaddish is recited for a full 11 months only in honor of one's parents.)
One may not shave, or have a haircut. There are likewise prohibitions against getting married, attending parties, or wearing new clothes.
The mourner continues to refrain from attending festive gatherings for a term of one year.
Yahrzeit is a memorial anniversary of death. On this day there should be no rejoicing, no eating of meat or drinking alcohol. There is a custom of kindling a yahrzeit candle at dark on the evening before the anniversary of death. The flame and wick symbolize the soul and body of the deceased. One also recites the Mourner's Kaddish on this day.
Four times a year, at the Yizkor service, we publicly remember those we mourn.
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