Dealing with the death of a loved one can be one of the most emotionally challenging periods of one’s life. Coupling it with navigating the many logistical and ritual elements of the Jewish tradition can feel overwhelming. This section is meant to help you deal with both the secular and Jewish elements of death and the mourning process. Learning these details now will provide you more space to grieve when you do face a loss.
As death approaches, the clergy at CBE are here to comfort and support you. Please let us know if you or a loved one is seriously ill or in the hospital by calling us at (718) 360-4732.
We know that the days leading up to a death can cause a whirlwind of emotions and pain. However, it is important at that time to concentrate on the living and avoid treating your loved one as if they have already died. Funerals can be planned quickly and will always be treated with urgency. Still, there are important steps you can take in the days (and years) leading up to Will you do this in death. The more information you can collect about your loved one before they pass away, the easier the administrative burden will be after their death. Therefore, we suggest, if possible, completing the following forms before they are needed:
Family Information Form and Checklist
This form is for the use of the family and contains important information including your loved one’s Hebrew name and their parents’ Hebrew names, estate and insurance information, names of relatives, and funeral arrangements. Collecting this information is essential for filling out the death certificate, preparing the funeral, and settling your loved one’s estate.
Advanced Directive (Living Will) and Health Care ProxyAn advanced directive enables a person to specify the kind of life-saving measures he or she wants and does not want near the end of life. Although it is difficult, speaking with your loved ones about these issues will greatly ease the burden of decision making later. New York State allows one to appoint a proxy to make these decisions.
Wills are essential documents that allow you to decide what happens to your estate after you pass away. Because there are many legal issues, both state and federal, surrounding one’s property and estate, we urge you to contact a lawyer. Every adult, no matter his or her age, needs a will.
Ever since Jacob gathered his children together around his deathbed (Gen. 49), ethical wills have remained an important means to pass on one’s values, blessings, and dreams to one’s family and loved ones. Often written in the form of a letter, these documents contain the essential lessons one wants to impart to those they love. For more information about these documents click here.
Finding a Plot
One of the simplest ways to help your family deal with the logistical challenges of death is to pre-purchase a funeral plot. There are many Jewish cemeteries in the New York and New Jersey area. CBE has a number of plots at the New Mount Carmel Cemetery, one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in New York. New Mount Carmel is located approximately 30 minutes by car from Park Slope and CBE’s gravesites are situated right off a major cemetery road, making it easy for family members and friends to visit loved ones’ place of rest. Burial plots may be purchased for use by any Jewish member of a CBE family – yourself, a spouse or life partner, a parent or any family member. For more information, click here.
When someone is understood to be within three days of death, they fall under the category of a goses. At this time, loved ones should be especially careful to tend to the physical and emotional comfort of that person. While one should avoid praying for a loved one’s death, many find comfort in praying for a loved one to find peace. Some might also find it comforting to recite Psalms, or Biblical poems, many of which deal with mourning and healing. Psalms 23 , 91 , 103 , 121 , 130, and 139 are all particularly appropriate.
As we reach the end of life there is one particular prayer that may be recited. Tradition teaches that one should repent the day before his or her death (Talmud, Shabbat 153a). For this reason, many choose to recite the vidui, or confessional prayer. The prayer asks God for forgiveness and to watch over their family after they pass away. The prayer ends with a recitation of the Shema, an affirmation of God’s oneness. Our rabbis believed that special merit would come to those who affirmed God in this way toward the end of their life.
Guidelines for managing the process after a loved one’s death are provided below. At any point along the way CBE clergy are here to help you navigate this often overwhelming process. Please call us at (718) 360-4732. This emergency number goes directly to our cell phones.
Depending on where a person dies there are a number of different steps one takes upon discovering a death.
In the hospital:
Find the attending nurse or doctor. The doctor will prepare the death certificate and arrange for transportation of the body to the funeral home. The family should make arrangements with the funeral home directly, though CBE clergy can help guide you if you have questions.
Call the hospice physician who will prepare all necessary documents. Together you will arrange with the funeral home for transportation of the body.
In some cases, your first call will be to the police or 911 to report the death. The officials will arrange for transportation of the body. Only after this phone call should you call the funeral home.
At some point during or after these initial steps, one can recite the ancient formula:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Dayan Ha’emet
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, the True Judge
This phrase is the standard formula said when something bad happens in life. It acknowledges that things are often out of our control and that even in our time of pain and sorrow we can acknowledge God’s presence.
While autopsies are generally forbidden by Jewish law, there are situations where either the law requires one or there are mysteries surrounding a death that a family needs to clarify. In these cases, the CBE clergy can provide a list of guidelines that the family can ask the Medical Examiner’s office to follow. Generally, the Medical Examiner’s office will abide by such a request.
If a Suicide Occurs
While all deaths are tragic, death by suicide is particularly painful. If someone you love has taken his or her own life, please contact us immediately. Full funeral and mourning practices will be observed.
Contacting a Funeral Home
Congregation Beth Elohim will work with any funeral home of your choice. However, we often work with these four:
Plaza Jewish Community Chapel
630 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10024
Riverside Memorial Chapel
180 W 76th St, New York, NY 10023
1895 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11210
Parkside Memorial Chapels Inc
2576 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11234
The funeral home will be primarily responsible for transporting the body, providing the casket, and preparing obituaries and death certificates. CBE clergy will travel for funerals outside of the immediate Brooklyn area for members of the congregation and their immediate families. There is no charge for the clergy to do funerals for our members and members of their immediate families. Our clergy will not accept any honorarium for officiating. However, it is customary to make a contribution to the Rabbi or Cantor’s Discretionary Fund which is used to support special needs that emerge within the community.
If clergy can, upon request, they will also officiate at funerals for non-members, provided these funerals do not impede their existing responsibilities to the congregation.
Decisions Immediately Following Death
At the funeral home, you will make decisions about these things:
- Timing and other arrangements related to the funeral itself
- Burial or cremation
- Choosing a coffin
- Pre-burial rituals, if any
- Selecting 6-8 pallbearers to escort the coffin out of the funeral
Timing of funeral
Kevod hamet is the value of showing honor to a deceased loved one through word and action. One important way to honor a loved one is not to delay the burial. CBE clergy will prioritize all aspects of the funeral in order to ensure it is arranged quickly and we will be prepared for the funeral to take place on the day following death. While it is understandable that certain extenuating circumstances may necessitate a delay (such as the arrival of a close family member from out of town), Jewish tradition understands that the period between death and burial (anninut) is the most painful and difficult period for a mourner and seeks to minimize it by burying a loved one as soon as possible.
Jewish tradition has always valued the saving of lives. Because so many people benefit from organ donation, the Reform movement ruled that it is legally permissible (and in many cases preferable) to register as an organ donor (CCAR Responsa, “Surgical Transplants” 1968). This is in accord with many Orthodox authorities who have ruled likewise. We encourage everyone to make decisions about organ donation while they are still healthy. If you choose to make such donations, that information can be recorded on your driver’s license and your Living Will. The CBE clergy are always available to discuss the issue and answer any questions.
Choosing a Coffin
In Hebrew, the word for coffin is aron. Traditionally, Jewish coffins are made of plain pine wood and include no metal, though some people may choose more ornate coffins. The reason many Jews choose simple coffins is twofold. First, it is important that the whole casket can decompose. This is because it says in the book of Genesis (3:19), “For you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Second, Jewish tradition values democracy in burial. The only thing we can take into the next world with us is a good name. Therefore, all people should be treated equally during burial. This notion finds its roots in Talmudic times:
Formerly, they used to bring out the deceased for burial: the rich on a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets; the poor on a plain bier. The poor felt ashamed. Therefore, a law was established that all should be brought out on a plain bier (Talmud, Moed Katan 27a)
Jewish tradition discourages cremation and advocates burial in the earth as a way to show respect to a loved one who has died. The Reform movement has stated publicly that if cremation is chosen the cremains should be buried in a Jewish cemetery rather than scattering them. CBE clergy advise burial but will officiate at a funeral of someone who has been cremated.
Jewish tradition advocates that one should be buried whole. For this reason, many seek to ensure that the blood and organs are intact at the time of burial (with exceptions made for organ donation and autopsies – see above). For this reason and others, our tradition discourages embalming. In the event that a funeral needs to be delayed, refrigeration provides an alternative to embalming, that is in keeping with Jewish tradition.
Preparing a Body For Burial
You may wish to consider the practices of the chevrah kadisha or Jewish burial society which are some of the most ancient and beautiful practices in Judaism. Your funeral home can give you more information about local chevrah kadisha in the area. The job of a chevrah kadisha falls mainly into three categories:
Jewish tradition believes that the soul does not depart the body immediately. For this reason, it has become a custom that someone stays with a body (or if that is not possible, in a room closest to the body) from the moment of death until burial. Out of respect for the body, a shomer, or guardian, should refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, singing, or speaking about business since the deceased cannot enjoy these things. Usually a shomer will sit quietly with the body and read from the book of Psalms, in Hebrew or English. If this practice might be meaningful to you, ask your funeral home about it.
Taharah is the purification and preparation of the body for burial. Before taharah begins one closes the eyes and mouth of the deceased and their limbs are straightened.The body is then turned so that the feet face the door, and some have the custom of placing the body on the floor to begin its descent into the earth. Taharah, the careful ritual washing of the body then begins, starting with the head and moving down the body. If this practice might be meaningful to you, ask your funeral home about it.
Following washing, the body is then dressed in a kittel or simple burial shroud. This simple wrapping serves to equalize all who die; just as we came into the world simple, we leave the world simple, taking only our name and good deeds. This is also the reason why traditionally no makeup or jewelry is worn at the time of burial. Burial shrouds address a problem we deal with even today: the high cost of funerals. Jewish tradition explains:
At one time, funerals [among the Jewish people] were more difficult [because they were more costly] for the relatives [of the deceased] than the death itself, so much so that they would leave [the body] and flee. Then Rabban Gamliel came and behaved simply with regard to himself, [insisting] that they would bring his body out in linen garments. Then everyone followed his example and brought out bodies in linen garments. Rav Papa said: “Now it is the practice to bring out bodies in rough cloth worth only a zuz.” (Talmud Ketubot 8b)
If this practice appears meaningful to you, ask your funeral home about it.
Traditionally a mourner is the father, mother, brother, sister, spouse, son or daughter of the deceased, although one may certainly bring others like grandchildren or close cousins into the inner circle.
Mourning before a funeral
During the time between death and burial, these mourners are called onenim and are in a period called aninut. There are no traditional customs or practices associated with this stage. This is because the death is too raw to focus on anything particular. Rabbi Maurice Lamm writes:
“The onen [mourner during aninut] is a person in deep distress, a person yanked out of normal life and abruptly catapulted into the midst of inexpressible grief. He is disoriented, his attitudes are disarrayed, his emotions [are] out of gear. The shock of death paralyzes his consciousness and blocks out all regular patterns of orderly thinking” (The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p. 21).
The Talmud teaches us, “Do not console a person whose deceased relative lies before him” (Mishnah Avot 4:23). This means that at this time of intense sadness, one should avoid worrying about making a mourner “feel better.” Instead, rather than trying to cheer a mourner up, we should offer a mourner our warm presence and our open hearts. Sometimes, just being there is enough. However, with all things, take your cues from the mourner and be sensitive to his or her needs and wishes.
Funerals are often an important tool to help children achieve closure. However, we acknowledge that often children are not at a developmental stage to fully understand what is happening at a funeral and burial. Recent scholarship has shown that in some cases what children imagine goes on at a funeral can be more disturbing than anything that actually occurs. Please consult the CBE clergy if you would like to talk more about involving children. If you decide to bring a child, a close friend or family member who does not mind leaving the ceremony should be assigned to care for him or her.
Jewish Rituals at a Funeral
Actions associated with preparing and burying a body are known as chesed shel emet or true acts of loving kindness, as there is no reward or thanks given by the deceased after one cares for him or her. Because of this, Jewish tradition contains many rituals that involve numerous members of the community, both at the cemetery and at the funeral, so that those close to the deceased may show their love.
Ever since Jacob tore his garments upon hearing the news of his son Joseph’s death, kriah or the ritual ripping of garments or ribbons pinned to garments has been an important part of the Jewish funeral practice. It symbolizes the tear that has occurred in the lives of the mourners and also gives a physical catharsis for one’s pain. For the most part, this practice is done by the deceased’s father, mother, spouse, son, daughter, brother, and sister, however others can do it. If one is mourning a parent he should tear his clothes or ribbon on his left side, above his or her heart. For everyone else he should tear on his or her right side. Kriah is traditionally done while standing and the ribbon or torn garment is worn for the days following the funeral.
Funeral Service: What to Expect
Funeral services are traditionally short, lasting anywhere from 30-40 minutes. They usually consist of three traditional aspects. The first section of a funeral consists of readings and psalms (liturgical poems) about loss and faith. The second section is the hesped or the funeral eulogy. The CBE clergy will meet with your family before the funeral to learn more about the deceased, so that we can craft a meaningful eulogy and sketch of their life. While members of the family and dear friends are invited to speak, we also acknowledge that the main task of a mourner is to mourn. Therefore, while we encourage family and friends to share memories, CBE clergy are happy to share any memories for you, if speaking is too challenging. After these speeches, the funeral service concludes with one specific prayer, El Malei Rachamim. This prayer asks God to have compassion and to enfold the soul of our loved one under God’s wings.
At the funeral, the aron or casket remains closed but in view during the service. Often, the casket is covered with a blanket called a pall. Since the casket is often plain pine wood, this covering is meant to beautify the ceremony. Ask the funeral home if you would like one of these covers. Following the service, the pallbearers take the coffin outside to the hearse. Most funerals have 6-8 pallbearers. Most funeral homes will provide this service for you. However, you may choose to designate friends or family of the deceased who are not the primary mourners for this honor if you want.
At the Cemetery
When one arrives at the cemetery, it is a tradition for those carrying the casket to pause seven times before reaching the grave. The number seven symbolizes the cycle of life—seven is considered a complete number in Judaism—and one pauses to display one’s unwillingness to part from a loved one. Often, someone will recite Psalm 91 during this processional. At the graveside, the rabbi or cantor will recite more psalms and poems.
Traditionally, flowers are not placed by the graveside. Often, those wishing to show respect and to their loved one will make a donation to charity in their name or will provide a meal to the deceased relatives during Shiva.
Once the casket is lowered into the grave, immediate family, followed by relatives and friends shovel earth into the grave. It is customary for those shoveling earth to shovel the first bits with an overturned shovel, symbolizing reluctance. Afterwards, all take turns shoveling earth into the grave, sometimes continuing until it is full. If not filling the grave completely, many will shovel enough so that the top of the casket can no longer be seen. Traditionally one does not pass the shovel to other mourners but returns it to the pile of earth, as each person must participate in the ritual out of his own free will.
At this point, mourners will recite either the mourners kaddish or the more traditional burial kaddish. This Aramaic prayer exalts God even at this difficult time and asks God to send peace to the world.
After the burial, guests form two parallel lines from the grave back toward the parking area. Mourners walk between these two lines as they are greeted with condolences by family and friends. The traditional condolence greeting is:
Hamakom Yinachem Etchem B’toch She’ar Avalay Tzion v’Yerushalayim
May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem
This marks the transition point of the day, where the attention switches from remembering and caring for the deceased to focusing on comforting the mourner.
The following section includes a number of rituals, some of which are more common in Reform communities than others. As with anything surrounding death, we invite you to do what is meaningful to you and your family to help you in your time of grief.
After the burial, many may choose to wash their hands either before leaving the cemetery or upon arriving home. This marks the transition between being an onen (see above) and becoming a formal mourner called an avel. Some observe the custom of having a basin of water outside of the shiva house to facilitate this.
After arriving home memorial candles are lit. Mourners may sit on low stools to signal a lack of concern for personal comfort and appearance. In addition, mourners may choose to wear slippers, avoid wearing leather, and will remove all but the plainest, simplest jewelry. Many mourners may also choose to cover their mirrors, symbolizing a need to focus wholly on their grief rather than superficial things like their appearance.
The traditional first meal following the funeral is called the seudat havra-ah, or the meal of recovery or condolence. Mourners may choose to eat this meal in private. Often mourners will choose to eat foods at this meal that are round (bagels, eggs, or lentils) symbolizing the cycle of life.
Although some mourners will sit for fewer days, traditionally, the period known as shiva lasts seven days and is modeled after the mourning practice of Jacob’s sons after his death (Gen. 50:10). However, what many don’t realize is that these seven days usually amount to less, as the day of the burial counts as day one, mourning is suspended on Shabbat, and the final day ends an hour or two after daybreak. In addition to the above activities, it is customary for mourners to refrain from work during whatever days they are sitting shiva. For as many days as mourners sit, friends and family fill the mourner’s house to provide condolence, support, and meals. At least once a day, CBE clergy or a member of the community will be available to conduct a shiva minyan. This short service, which must have ten adult Jews present, allows the mourner a chance to reflect on their loved one and culminates in the recitation of the Kaddish by the mourners. CBE will ensure that there are enough people and prayer books at the minyan.
Please let the CBE clergy know how many days of shiva you will observe and whether/when you would like to have shiva minyanim. You can call us at 718-360-4732 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, even if you are not sitting shiva, please let us know about any deaths in your family. We can read the name of a loved one at services as well as send out a CBE mourns email in memory of close family members.
During Shabbat, mourners are encouraged to participate in Shabbat services. For major holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, mourning is cancelled after the holiday passes. When the burial has taken place during the intermediary days of Passover and Sukkot, shiva begins after the festival. In all of these cases, please consult with CBE clergy for more details.
Visitors to a shiva home should be mindful to adjust the length of their visits to the needs of the mourner. It is important to note that the mourner need not entertain their guests. Nechum avelim or comforting the bereaved is a mitzvah, a commandment, and thus no thanks are due. For this reason, one should not be shy to visit a shiva house even if he or she did not receive a death announcement. There is no need to ring the bell before entering if the door is unlocked. Additionally, there is no need to entertain or “cheer up” the mourner. A friend’s presence is enough. When you arrive enter quietly, avoid being too loud or rushing up to a mourner, and follow the mourners cues as to what kind of conversation if any he or she wants to pursue.
Also, it is not necessary for the mourner to serve of food and drink at shiva houses. We encourage friends to bring food for the mourners themselves. The CBE Chesed committee will make every effort to provide a meal for mourners either during or after the shiva.
It is taught that the Jewish people mourned for Moses for 30 days after his death (34:8). Shloshim is a transition period after the first seven days of mourning have ended. For 30 days after burial, those who are in shloshim, which means 30, begin to return to their normal lives. This is traditionally the time when people return to work and continue their routine but refrain from overtly festive and social activities. Traditionally, it is customary for men at this time to remain unshaven as a sign of their continued mourning, and for men and women to refrain from getting haircuts. All mourners continue to say Kaddish daily throughout this time. The 30th day concludes mourning for all mourners except for children mourning the loss of a parent. We will read your loved one’s name through this period on Shabbat. CBE clergy can provide more information about the spiritual practices associated with these times
Shanah literally means year. Traditionally, children of the deceased continue to recite Kaddish for their parents for a full 11 months after a parent’s death. Like shloshim, it is traditional for those reciting Kaddish to refrain from festive activities during this period as well. CBE clergy will provide more information associated with the spiritual practices about these times
Following burial, and four times a year, at Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, it is traditional for a congregation to have a formal memorial service for those who have died. This service called the yizkor service, meaning memorial. CBE conducts these services. You may find it comforting to join the community remembering loved ones, so we invite your participation at these services.
Ever since Jacob marked Rachel’s grave with a pillar (Gen. 35:20), Jews have observed the custom of marking graves. Gravestones often include the Hebrew and English names of the deceased as well as the dates of birth and death. If you are not sure of the Hebrew spelling of the name, you can send a copy of the engraver’s stencil to CBE clergy at the synagogue for verification. The monument company will provide you with a copy of the stencil. Your funeral home can provide you with a list of reputable monument companies in the area.
After the stone is carved and anytime between the end of shloshim (30 days) and the one year anniversary of the death, it is customary to have an unveiling of the stone or monument. This ceremony traditionally does not need a rabbi and includes the reading of psalms as well as the recitation of Kaddish or El Malei Rachamim. Our clergy recommend that family members consider writing a letter to their deceased loved one and reading it at the unveiling.
Each year on the Shabbat closest to the anniversary of a loved one’s death, it is customary to come to services and recite Kaddish for them. A few weeks before a loved one’s Yahrzeit, CBE sends letters to those mourners to remind them. If you did not receive a letter ahead of time please let us know so we can ensure your loved one is on the Kaddish list. Traditionally, one lights a 24-hour candle in memory of the deceased. It is also customary to make charitable contributions at this time.
Mourning For Members Of Other Religious Backgrounds
We know that there are many Jews whose family of origin is not Jewish or who have spouses or close family from other religious backgrounds. As in all other cases, the CBE community is available for help and support at a time of loss. If you choose, names of non-Jewish loved ones can be added to the Kaddish list.
Donate a Memorial Plaque in memory of your loved one. Memorial Walls provide a special place to honor those who have touched our lives. Memorializing the names of loved ones expresses gratitude for the gift of their precious lives, and the hope that their spirits will continue to inspire us. Members can add a plaque with the name of a loved one to the beautiful Memorial Walls located in our Sanctuary. In Jewish tradition, we mark the memories of loved ones by kindling a flame next to each plaque on Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur Day, and on the Yahrzeit (annual anniversary of their death). Your loved one’s name will also be included automatically every year in the Yom Kippur Book of Remembrance. The cost is $1,800 per plaque.