Ask the Expert: Mourning Missing Persons

How do we mourn without a body?


Question: What are the mourning practices for a missing person? What if a body is never found but it is clear that a person died?
–Claire, Georgia

Ask the Expert JewishAnswer:
Grieving for loved ones is among the hardest thing most of us will do in our lives, regardless of the circumstances of the loss. But the families of those men and women who have gone missing have an especially horrible situation to face. To be left without precise knowledge of what happened to a father, sister, son, or wife is a devastating fate, and one that Jewish law has grappled with extensively.

Jewish law (halakhah) emphasizes the importance of being absolutely certain that a person has died before mourning rituals are observed. This is partially because of the sticky legal situations that can transpire if a person who was assumed to be dead is found alive. But halakhah also asks that the families of those who are missing maintain hope that they will return.

According to the Shulhan Arukh, when no corpse is recovered, the community should seek out an eyewitness to the death. If a witness is available to testify before a Jewish court (beit din), then mourning rituals, such as sitting shiva, and saying Kaddish, begin when the court concludes that the missing person has died.

If no witness is available to testify, but there is a report that the man was killed by thieves, drowned, or was dragged off by a wild animal, then the person is assumed to have died, and mourning rituals begin when his family gives up hope for the recovery of the body (this point appears to be subjective–essentially, whenever the family is ready to begin mourning). If a body or body parts are found later on, and conclusively proven to be from the missing person in question, then those remains should be buried. Shiva does not need to be repeated, but the day of the burial of the remains should be considered a day of mourning. (Yoreh Deah 375:7)

Today, there are many criteria beyond eyewitness testimony that can be used in a Jewish court to determine that a person is dead when no body has been found. If no one witnessed the person coming to harm, but it was known that the person was in a location (such as a building that collapsed or a plane that crashed) where no one else survived, then it can generally be assumed that he or she is no longer alive.

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