jewish Funeral Guide

Preparation for Jewish Burial

At the Moment of Death

Final respects. Staying with a person who is passing away, gives respect, support and satisfaction to the departing soul. Therefore, during the last moments of life no one may leave the room, except for those who are unable to control their emotions or are physically ill. As was already explained, a Cohen should also leave, unless he is the doctor or one of the closest relatives of the dying person.

No one is allowed to hasten the death even by a moment, even when the dying person is suffering tremendously and wants to die. We have no right to determine the moment when one should die. Who knows, maybe in that moment the person will reach a higher level of repentance than ever before.

Confessional prayer. Those who are hovering between this world and the next should bless their children and ask forgiveness from their family and friends. It is customary also to recite Viduy / וידוי — the confessional prayer on a deathbed. It should not be confused with a non-Jewish ritual — everybody recites the same prayer and there is no priest to absolve sins. One may also confess his specific sins using his own words, but does not have to do it publicly — the confession may be recited silently.

If one is not capable of reciting Viduy, someone else should read this prayer aloud, so that the dying person could hear it and, if possible, answer Amen / אמן. When offering to read the confessional prayer, one should be very sensitive and clearly articulate that many who confessed did not die, while many who refused to confess died anyway. Yet, those who did confess before dying earned their portion in the World to Come. The confessional prayer is concluded with Shema Israel / שמע ישראל a prayer that proclaims the Oneness of God.

After the death. After death has been ascertained, the eyes and the mouth of the deceased must be closed, the limbs straightened, the head elevated on a pillow and the whole body covered with a sheet. Normally this is done, in accordance with Jewish tradition, by the members of Chevra Kadisha / חברה קדישא — burial society, which should be notified as soon as possible. Chevra Kadisha will care for the remains and will do Hashkavah / השכבה — the ceremony of lowering the body to the floor. If the death occurs on the Sabbath / שבת, only the most minimal arrangements may be made. The Sabbath prohibitions may be pushed aside for the sake of saving life, but not for the sake of the dead. A qualified rabbi should be consulted, since most rabbinic authorities rule that under normal circumstances the body must not be removed from its resting place on the Sabbath.

If possible, windows in the room where the deceased is lying should be opened. Mirrors, which reflect our vanity, should be covered as will be explained later, and, unless it is the Sabbath, a lit candle - a symbol of the soul - should be placed at the head of the deceased. The water from all non-sealed vessels in the house should be poured out, as alluded to in the Book of Samuel II 14:14“for we shall surely die and be as water spilled on the ground / כי מות נמות וכמים הנגרים ארצה”. One of the reasons this is done is to stop the death from spreading, since the Angel of Death is believed to have cleaned his dripping knife in water. However, water is not poured out on the Sabbath or on a scripturally mandated Yom Tov / יום טוב — a major Jewish Holiday.

Honoring God. It is customary for those who are present at the time of death or when they first hear that someone has died to say: “Baruch Dayan HaEmet / ברוך דין האמת — Blessed is the True Judge”, acknowledging the righteousness of the heavenly decree. Some also add, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord / ה' נתן וה' לקח, יהי שם ה' מברך ” (Job 1:21). Those, who are obligated by Jewish Law to mourn the passing of the deceased, should rend their garments (unless it is the Sabbath or Yom Tov) and recite the full version of the Baruch Dayan Emet / ברוך דיין האמת blessing, including the Name of God. However, many have a custom to do it later, at the funeral service, because all the family and relatives are there and the officiating rabbi is available to instruct the mourners how to properly fulfill this obligation. We shall discuss the details of the rending later.

Honoring the deceased. Based on principles that we discussed earlier, there may be no eating, drinking, smoking, singing or playing of music in the presence of the deceased. These are pleasures the dead can no longer enjoy. Prayer, wearing Tefillin / תפילין and learning Torah is also prohibited in the presence of the deceased. Tzitzit / ציצית should not be displayed outside one’s garments. Talking in the presence of the deceased must be limited to details of his/her burial. It is forbidden to speak derogatorily about the deceased, even if what is said is true, since he is unable to reply to the accusations. It is customary to recite Psalms in the presence of deceased, especially Psalm 23“The Lord is my Shepherd” and Psalm 91, which tells us that God protects those who trust Him.

The deceased must be at all times accompanied by a Shomer / שומר — a watchman, who is usually one of the family members, friends or Chevra Kadisha / חברה קדישא members.