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Preparing for Death and Grieving

There's a time for taking in information about death and grief and there's a time to speak directly with your rabbi. These are a few thoughts about the former that are in no way meant to replace the latter.  

The heartbreak of saying Goodbye is an expression of how big and full the heart can be. We contain multitudes of deep emotions:  they shake us, they change us, but they do not break us. We can be strong and very fragile at the same time.

Preparing for one's own death Jewishly is a time for pre-preparing as much as possible (burial plots, funeral home, consolidated documents and directives) and then, as the time is imminent, letting go of responsibility, and putting into others' hands those responsibilities, knowing that while you used to handle such things, you've equipped them to be able to handle all things. Let them. Trust them. That is a great of act of love toward them, faith in them.

Jewishly there is no reason to prolong suffering. Jewish Law allows the alleviation of suffering, even when it hastens death, in cases where there is no hope of recovery. (This is the category of the "mortally wounded" in the Shulkhan Arukh.) We actively promote palliative care.   

To the extent that there is strength and desire to do so, one may deliver communications that have been left undelivered up until now. Is there something you always meant to tell your spouse, son, daughter, that you never did? This is a time to tell them or write it to them. Are you anxious to say something to a future version of them (say, to be read when they are getting married or for a bat mitzvah), then dictate this message to someone and give them the responsibility of delivering it at the appropriate time. Is there something about your life you'd like remembered? Dictate it so it can be shared, whether at the memorial service, or for loved ones to read to themselves during the four Yizkor services each year, or at future family Seders. Connect it to a Jewish event like a holiday that repeats.

In terms of Jewish law, the main communication that should be delivered, if still possible to do so, is any apology left unsaid up until now. This is the time to communicate to your loved ones where you ask their forgiveness. Is there a regret you've been harboring? Do you feel they needed something different from what you gave? Say what you have to say, and then ACCEPT their forgiveness. You may not be too holy to accept their forgiveness:  this must be done.

At this point, one says the Vidui prayer. Given the non-Jewish connotations to the word "sin," most translations come across too harsh. The Hebrew should be paraphrased as this:  

My God, you are the same one to whom my parents and grandparents and all my ancestors turned. Accept this my prayer. I know that my soul is pure, but there is no way to live a perfect life in this world. If I am with one person, I cannot be with another at the same time. If my temperament is one way, I may not be the person another needed at some moment. I know there are parts of how you made me, my character and temperament, also shaped by my experiences in this world, which made me a certain way. I know that I have let others down, let You down, and I've let myself down at times because of this. I wasn't the way another needed. I missed opportunities. But I now acknowledge that this was not intentional, and no one is perfect. I do not claim to be. Please consider all suffering and pain I've experienced in my life as full payment for my imperfections. I have asked forgiveness of others, of You, and of myself, and I am forgiven.  I embrace the pure soul in me, whose other home is in You.While a full recovery is wished for, I also entrust that my spirit is always in your care, and that you will watch over those precious to me in this world. May my soul continue to be bound up with theirs. Watch over them, as I join You.   Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad

When Death Occurs

Normally when death occurs, one calls the Jewish mortuary. It is helpful to choose one ahead of time so you have a connection.  Ira Kaufman Chapel, Hebrew Memorial Chapel, and Dorfman Funeral Home are all familiar with Beth Israel standards.

A full FAQ with contact information can be found on our website here.

Once death occurs, burial in America (unlike Israel) usually takes place within 3 days. One does not bury on Shabbat or holidays. It does not have to be 24 hours. The main principle is not to postpone the funeral unnecessarily.

A memorial announcement to the congregation goes out after death to indicate the arrangements.

The period between the death and the burial is called aninut, a word that means "affliction" but whose description in this context exactly aligns with what we call "shock." During this period before the burial, during which the family is busy with preparations, all positive commandments ("thou shalt...") for the mourners are suspended, and they are only responsible for the prohibitions ("thou shalt not") of Jewish law. The restrictions that apply to shivah, such as not drinking alcohol and not going to work, do not yet apply, until the burial.

There is a memorial service at the synagogue, followed by a burial at the cemetery. The Memorial Service is almost entirely words about the person we're burying. The rabbi gets together with all close family members a day or two before the funeral and asks questions and takes notes. Sometimes the rabbi is designated to put it all together into one main eulogy. Alternatively, an adult child takes on the responsibility to do one main eulogy, or it is split between two. The difference between a eulogy (a hesped) and simply sharing one's thoughts is that a eulogy encompasses 1) a sense of the person's biography, not just recent years, 2) how this person is viewed and experienced by others and not by just the speaker. Often these days there will be one main eulogy, plus two or three other personal reflections, plus the rabbi's comments. 

If one prefers to share a reading, then some readings may be found here.

The rabbi will add an additional few words to speak on behalf of Judaism, either at the beginning or at the end. One Psalm is recited and the El Malei Rachamim prayer. At that point, the appointed pallbearers [who may be blood relatives or not, depending on which custom you choose] escort the casket outside to be driven to the cemetery. Family follows the casket first, then others.  Cars find their own way to the cemetery.

Burial is brief. The casket is lowered,  a psalm and El Malei Rachamim are recited. Earth is placed on top of the casket. People may use a shovel or a handful. Some do three, some turn the shovel upside down--there are varying acceptable customs but the mitzvah is simply to help bury. We then say Mourner's Kaddish and depart. (One does not linger.) Then cemetery workers fill the grave the rest of the way. Then shivah begins. 


There are three concentric rings of grieving:  a week, inside of a month, inside of a year.

The innermost ring is shivah, which means seven, and also, appropriately, sounds like the Hebrew word for "sitting (at home)." During shivah, a mourner gathers with other family members (if convenient) and stays at home, during which they schedule hours for receiving visitors (who are required to bring food to them, since those in grief often forget to eat). During this period, a mourner is forbidden from diverting attention away from grief, or postponing it, through going to school or work, drinking alcohol, attending celebrations or entertainment, or engaging in frivolities. One covers mirrors in the home in order not to be distracted by one's appearance, especially as one does not shave. Postponing grief is not permitted. Each day one should gather a minyan in the home for a service in which memories are shared and the kaddish is recited. The only exception is shabbat, when one joins the service at synagogue and recites the kaddish with the congregation.

Normally the family designates a time for people to come over for the first service and kaddish, either immediately following burial, or a few hours later. They also designate "visiting hours" each day to visit them, and these coincide with a daily service so they can say Kaddish. (Beth Israel minyan meets on Sunday at various times, and 7:30pm Mon-Thur.) After prayers, time is opened up for people to tell stories, share memories, even show photos. One does not do a shivah during Shabbat: instead one comes to Shabbat services and says the Kaddish when it is recited.

A full shivah ends after a little less than 7 days, which include the day of burial. If burial is a Wednesday, shivah ends Tuesday morning (so Monday night is the last minyan). Jewish Law, however, requires only 3 days of shivah, so a minimum shivah for a Wednesday burial would end Friday morning. There is no shame in doing a briefer shivah, especially in cases when grieving began prior to the death.

The purpose of shivah is to allow the mourners to be comforted by community members, family and friends.  Thus, their return to a normal time of life is eased by the support of others.  In recent  years, the purpose of shivah has largely been lost, as shivahhas featured more of a party atmosphere.  This is inappropriate.  There is no obligation to serve food to those who come to shivah to comfort the mourners.  Traditionally, visitors should bring food only for the mourners (with an awareness of kashrut issues).  

Sheloshim, Kaddish, Unveiling, Yahrzeit, Memorial Plaque & Yizkor

There are three concentric circles of mourning. The shivah ("seven") begins sheloshim ("thirty")--the 30 day mourning period from the funeral--and that is part of the first year period. Passing from week to the rest of the month to the rest of the year, each step softens the intensity of grief. During shivah, one does not go to work, school, dinner parties or celebrations: one tells friends when they may visit you to comfort you, and one says Kaddish every day with a minyan. During sheloshim, one may return to work, school, and socializing, but does not attend celebrations or parties. One continues to say Kaddish daily during this time. Sometimes the last day of the 30 day period is marked in some way:  for example, if one sat shivah in a different city, they might make the end of sheloshim a memorial gathering at minyan, sharing stories and reflections. After the 30 day mark, one continues to say Kaddish daily for a parent, but is not required to do so for other relatives unless one takes on that commitment. For a parent, one says Kaddish for 11 or 12 lunar months from the day of burial. (There are multiple acceptable traditions:  11 months, 12 months minus a day, or 11 months then one week off then three more weeks.) You can ask the office to tell you the date.  Individuals must chart a course for themselves as to how they view the 11-month period.  The most important principle is that we view it as a gradual return to a normal life.  Jewish law strongly encourages daily recitation of kaddish with a minyan during the required period, which can be a very meaningful practice.  Attending the daily minyan on a regular basis is a basic example of community responsibility.  Sadly, we all need the minyan at some point in our lives.  We should become accustomed to helping ensure its continued presence.

The "yahrzeit" is the "anniversary" of the date of death according to the Jewish calendar. Your Beth Israel account will keep you informed. One ought to attend minyan every year on the yahrzeit to say Kaddish, and/or attend Shabbat services the weekend before. It is customary to light a yahrzeit candle (available at most Kroger's) for that day. (Yahrzeit candles are not lit with a blessing, and may be blown out and re-lit to maximize safety.)  

Any day from 30 days to a year from burial, one recognizes the installation of the headstone. It has become common to assemble family for this purpose and to invite the rabbi (or to get prayers from the rabbi) and to go the graveside, read the gravestone, share memories, and leave a pebble on the stone. This is called "unveiling."

It is common that as one order the gravestone, one also orders a memorial plaque to be mounted in the Beth Israel sanctuary. The light on the plaque is lit every day Kaddish is said for your loved one, and your loved one's name is read on the yahrzeit in perpetuity. It is a powerful act of memory and holiness.

After the first year is complete, one continues each year to say Kaddish at minyan and light a candle for each and every yahrzeit. In addition, one attends the 4 Yizkor services each year: Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, last day Pesach, and last day Shavuot. Your loved one's name is included in the synagogue's memorial book. In advance of these four services, at which one reads the Yizkor prayer that tells God you've taken an action of tsedakah in this world to honor your loved one, you either volunteer or give tsedakah. Normally one makes a donation to the synagogue to make the prayer true. 

A Graveside Burial Service

Sometimes a burial takes place in a different state from the funeral and shivah. In such cases, I've prepared a short burial service that a family might do themselves around the grave. It can be found by clicking here.

A Graveside Unveiling Service/Prayers for Visiting the Grave

I've prepared an unveiling service that a family might do themselves around the grave, or with a rabbi. It can be found by clicking here. These prayers may be done at any time one visits the grave.

Thu, May 23 2024 15 Iyyar 5784