About Death and Mourning
Judaism does not shy away from close encounters with death, but frames them ritually. Much attention is paid to treating the dead (and even a dead body) with respect (k’vod ha-met) and to comforting mourners (nichum aveilim).
History and Development
Many practices surrounding death that continue to this day–such as tearing one’s clothes, burial, and mourning the deceased–find their origins in the biblical text. There is both a remarkable consistency and fascinating differences in Jewish burial and mourning practices around the world.
Long before death, one may write an “ethical” will, recording values and guidance for one’s descendants. Individuals who may be dying are encouraged to recite the traditional deathbed viddui,or confession of sins.
Before the Funeral
Until the burial, a person who hears of the death of a first-degree relative (a parent, spouse, sibling, or child) is an onen (literally “someone in between”). Traditionally, the enigmatic yet powerful phrase “baruch dayan ha-emet” (“blessed is the judge of Truth”) is uttered upon hearing the news, and a garment is torn. The body is prepared for burial with great care by the hevra kaddisha (the sacred burial society), including ritual purification (tahora), and dressing the body in shrouds (tachrichim).
Funeral and Burial
Mourners are greeted by those attending the funeral, and tearing (kriah) of a garment or ribbon is repeated. The funeral has a small number of fixed liturgical elements, including the short prayer El Maleh Rachamim (“God full of compassion”), and usually includes psalms and a hesped, or eulogy. The service may take place in a funeral home, in a synagogue, or at the graveside. The burial is framed by other liturgical elements, including the recitation of a special version of the Kaddish prayer, often thought of as the “mourner’s prayer.” Mourners and others participate in covering the casket with dirt. Mourners leave the graveside first, and others say to them the traditional words, “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
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