Questions and Answers About Jewish Practices in Mourning and Death
THINGS YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT THE CHEVRA KADISHA BUT NEVER GOT AROUND TO ASKING
The following sources were used in preparing the answers below: The Stone Chumash (Five Books of Moses), Mesorah Publications, 1993; Mourning in Halachah, Rabbi C. B. Goldberg, Mesorah Publications, 1991; The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Rabbi M. Lamm, Jonathan David Publishing, 1969; A Guide to Life: Jewish Laws and Customs of Mourning, Rabbi T. Rabinowicz, Jason Aronson Publishing, 1989.
Q. What is the origin of the Chevra Kadisha?
A. In olden days, it was the custom of a family to bury a deceased relative near them and the graves of other family members. As time went by, this responsibility became more of a communal responsibility and led to the formation of the Chevra Kadisha. The name Chevra Kadisha means Holy Society, and is usually a group of men and women who are trained in the practices of Jewish burial preparation. In some communities, the Chevra Kadisha is staffed by paid members. In other communities, Calgary included, the functions of the Chevra Kadisha are carried out by volunteers.
Q. What makes the responsibility of proper burial so special?
A. In Judaism, the responsibility of burial is known as Chesed Shel Emet. This may be translated as “the truest act of kindness” or “deeds of loving kindness.” This is so because there can be no expectation of repayment. In other words, when we prepare a deceased for burial, we do so purely out of love and respect, with no motive of expecting reward or compensation.
Q. Why do we go through special procedures when preparing a deceased person for burial?
A. In Judaism, there is a fundamental principle of Kibud Ha-met – honouring the deceased. Thus, all procedures that are followed are done with the intent of according the deceased every respect. That begins with the way the body is prepared for burial (the purification and dressing in shrouds known as Tahara), involves burial of the body as soon as possible after death (the only delay usually permitted is for relatives to come from afar), and the mitzvah (obligation) of escorting the deceased to a proper burial.
It is the belief within Judaism that when we prepare the deceased for burial, we are preparing them for their final appearance and judgement before God, and their passage into the Olam Haba or world to come. Thus, it is important that the deceased be properly prepared. Within this practice is the Jewish belief that death is not the end of life, but the transition into another world that may include the reunion with loved ones who have passed on before. It is also the Jewish belief that in this preparation to appear before God, all people are equal. Thus, the prevailing Jewish customs are to treat all deceased equally. The shrouds that are used are the same for everyone, the casket that is used is usually the same for everyone, and so forth.
Q. What about the surviving family members? How are they to be treated?
A. There is a second principle in Judaism regarding death called Nichum Avelim – comforting the mourners. This relates to such practices as shiva (the seven days of mourning following a funeral) – visiting the house of mourners and bringing them food, etc. so that they are comforted and gradually eased back into the routine of daily life. There has arisen a recent practice of hosting a reception following a funeral. This is not in accordance with Jewish tradition. The mourners typically remain in the house of mourning (unless leaving to attend services at synagogue) and they are visited there. They should not be expected to host guests in the usual social way.
Q. What is the significance of erecting a tombstone?
A. The primary significance of a tombstone is to mark a grave clearly so that we do not step on it or so that a Kohen knows not to go near it. It is considered part of the act of respecting the deceased. There is actually no religious significance to the unveiling ceremony commonly practiced today. If a family has limited financial means, there is more honour given the deceased to ensure that a proper burial has taken place than there is erecting a fancy tombstone. In recent generations, the erecting of a tombstone is often done at the end of the eleven months of saying Kaddish. In other places, such as Israel, the stone may be erected following the shloshim, or thirty day mourning period following burial. It is considered acceptable to erect the stone at any time after the thirty days have ended.
Q. How is it determined what should be engraved on a tombstone?
A. This is a practice that has changed somewhat over the generations. It is generally accepted within Judaism that death and therefore, the gravesite, should not be overly glorified and that mourning practices remain in good taste. Thus, pictures of the deceased are generally discouraged and exaggerated platitudes are to be avoided. The most common practices now are to include the name of the deceased in Hebrew, although the local language can also be added; the date of death (the date of birth may also be included); basic Jewish inscriptions (in Hebrew and/or local language) such as “of blessed memory” or “may his/her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life”; and some simple expressions of honour (e.g. beloved father, mother, husband, wife, etc.). Some stones may also include a symbol of the deceased’s life, the most common example being the raised hands of a Kohen in blessing. There is also another practice that Jewish ritual be distinguished from that of surrounding non-Jewish cultures. Thus, pictures or sculptures of the deceased, or animals, or even flowers are discouraged.
Q. Why do Jewish customs of burial not include an open casket viewing so the deceased can be viewed one last time?
A. In Judaism, it is more important to remember the deceased as they lived, and not as they appear in death. The usual Jewish custom is not to embalm or apply makeup to a body. Nor is the body dressed in everyday clothes. Thus, it dishonours the deceased to view them in death. When the deceased is prepared for burial, the common practice is to close the casket and not reopen it for any reason.
Q. Does Jewish mourning practice include cremation?
A. Judaism unequivocally does not endorse cremation. The Jewish belief is that the body should return to the earth while the spirit returns to God who gave it. Thus, burial practice involves placing the entire body in the ground (not above the ground in mausoleums unless local conditions, e.g. high water tables, prevent burial). The burial shrouds (Tachrichim) contain no metal or buttons. The casket is made of materials that will decompose (no metal components) and has holes drilled to hasten decomposition. Similarly, effort is made not to place in the casket any materials that will not decompose.
Q. I notice at funerals that there is often a group of men who are located in a special room (in the new chapel). Why do they not attend in the main chapel area with other mourners?
A. These men are Kohanim, or descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levites who became the priests of Israel. Kohanim are expressly forbidden (see Leviticus 21:1) from becoming impure by being near a dead body. The only exceptions are to attend the funerals of immediate relatives. A Kohen may not go within about six feet of a grave either. Thus, provision is made to permit a Kohen attend a funeral service but accommodating them in a location that respects this practice.
Q. How are cemeteries now set up in Calgary?
A. In many larger communities, cemeteries are often organized under the auspices of a synagogue. However, in Calgary, it has been the practice to provide cemeteries on a more communal basis. This requires a careful balancing between the customs and practices of differing levels of observance, and the availability of burial plots at common locations. With the establishment of the Calgary Chevra Kadisha’s newest cemetery by Highway 22X, we now have the means to accommodate virtually all levels of observance in Calgary within the same location. The Chevra Kadisha relies on the direction of local Rabbis to determine in which section a deceased person may be buried.
Q. How does one volunteer to work with the Chevra Kadisha?
A. The Chevra Kadisha is always welcoming of those who wish to continue our work. The main areas where volunteers are needed are in the sewing of burial shrouds and the preparation of the deceased for burial. The best method of volunteering is to contact the Chevra’s office and leave your name. You will be contacted by the Executive Director, or the chair of the men’s or women’s Tahara committee, or the chair of the sewing committee.
Q. It was mentioned that flowers are not part of the Jewish ritual of burial. Why is that?
A. Flowers were used in ancient Jewish times to make the air more pleasant for those preparing a deceased for burial, something that is no longer required due to modern technology.
There appears to be two reasons why flowers are not part of Jewish funerals today. Firstly, they are usually associated with joyous celebrations which a funeral is most certainly not. Secondly, they were more often associated with idol worshiping ritual. Since Jewish people are encouraged to distinguish themselves from their non-Jewish surroundings, sending flowers has become a practice to be avoided. It is interesting that this is not a concern in Israel for obvious reasons, and flowers are much more commonly a part of funerals in Israel.
If it is impossible to discourage someone from sending flowers, or if it would be a grievous insult not to accept them, they should preferably be sent to the house of mourning and only displayed modestly at the funeral as a very last resort.
Q. It is also seems that music is not part of Jewish funerals. What is the reason for this?
A. The prohibition against music appears to be similar to the avoidance of flowers. Music is a sign of gaiety usually, and the mourner is required to avoid joyous celebration for a period of time following the death of their loved one.
Q. What is the significance of filling in the grave by hand?
A. Traditionally, it is considered both a mitzvah (obligation) and an honour to return the deceased to the earth. The non-Jewish custom of having the casket at ground level or covered by a grass mat and then leaving the actual burial to the cemetery employees after the mourners have left is considered in Judaism disrespectful to the deceased. While listening to the sound of earth hitting the casket has a definite emotional impact on mourners, facing and dealing with death is central to all Jewish mourning practice. At the burial, we do not hand the shovel directly from one person to the next as a symbol of our hope that the tragedy of death not be passed from one person to another. Some people even use the back of the shovel to put earth into the grave so as to distinguish from the normal use of the tool.
In the event that those present are not physically able to complete the filling in of the grave, it is permitted to halt after covering the casket, complete the burial service and then the cemetery staff can complete the burial.
Q. Why do we form two parallel lines after the burial and have the mourners walk in between?
A. The Jewish funeral and mourning process has two components: honoring the deceased (kibud hameit) and comforting the mourners (nichum aveilim). The preparation of the deceased for burial and the actual burial honours the dead, but as soon as the burial is complete, our obligation changes to comforting the mourners. Thus, as soon as possible, the mourners are asked to walk among us so they can be given the traditional message of comfort “May G-d comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” (Ha’makom yenachem et’chem b’toch she’ar avelei tzion vi’Yerushalayim).
Q. What is proper decorum when visiting a house of mourning (shiva house)?
A. The period of mourning after burial goes through three stages. The first is called shiva, which means seven, and involves the first week after burial. This first week is the most intense of the mourning periods. Daily routine stops as the impact of the loss is felt. The mourners observing shiva are to be totally supported by those around them, and do not leave the house at all during this period (unless they are attending prayer services elsewhere). It is the obligation of those surrounding the mourners to prepare their food, at least the first meal after the funeral which is known as the Meal of Consolation (Se’udat Havraah). It is customary to bring food for the mourners, but not gifts. In recent times, newer practices have been emerging, such as holding a reception at a hotel or elsewhere after the funeral. The more observant discourage this practice, perhaps because it is too reminiscent of the practice of holding wakes after non-Jewish deaths.
When one visits a house of mourning, it is customary not to ring the doorbell nor say “hello” to the mourner who is not to greet people during this time. The door to a house of shiva is left unlocked during the day so those coming may simply enter. The mourner is not likely to nor should it be expected that they rise to greet a visitor.
It is often difficult to know what to say to the mourner during this time. The most significant act is merely to be there with the mourner, even if little dialogue occurs. In fact, it is recommended that a visitor simply wait for the mourner to initiate conversation, and to let the mourner take the lead in setting the conversational tone. It is very acceptable to speak of the deceased, remembering his/her qualities and hopes, and to reminisce. Unless so requested, visitors should not remain for too long. When leaving the house, it is customary to wish the mourner “long life”, “good health”, or “no more sorrow”, or to repeat the message of comfort recited at the cemetery.
Visiting a shiva house does not usually occur on Saturday or Jewish holidays when public mourning is suspended. Some mourners have the custom of having their Rabbi visit them on the last day of shiva to take them out of shiva. But any visitor to a shiva house may be a part of this step, which often is as simple as going outside for a brief stroll to symbolize the beginning of the return to daily life following a loss.