"… and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it." —Ecclesiastes 12:7
As soon as a person passes away, Jewish mourning laws and customs that have evolved over the centuries spring into action. These practices serve to honor the deceased, console the living, and help mourners accept the reality of death. Additionally, they provide great cathartic value by giving vent to the mourners’ feelings of grief.
One of the first things is to prepare the body for burial. Often this is done by a group of men and woman known as the Chevrah Kaddisha, or “Sacred Society,” who thoroughly wash the body as part of the “act of purification” known as taharah, and then clothe the body in a plain white linen garb called takhirikhim, or shrouds.
Their deeds of loving kindness are regarded in the Jewish tradition as among the holiest because, as the rabbis note, God Himself buried Moses (Deuteronomy 34:6). ). In the Christian Bible, we see these practices carried out after the death of Jesus, when Joseph of Arimathea came with Nicodemus to take Jesus’ body, wrap it in strips of linen “in accordance with Jewish burial customs” and place it in a tomb (John 19:38-42).
The Jewish concept of kibbud hamet, or “honoring the deceased,” permeates all the laws and rituals associated with mourning. It is founded on the belief that when God breathed a divine soul of life into a human’s body, the body was transformed from mere matter into a holy vessel bearing the image of God (Genesis 2:7). In the Christian Bible, the Apostle Paul expressed this belief in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Since humans, therefore, are not only earthly but also divine beings, our bodies must be treated with utmost reverence and respect.
Upon learning of a death, or at the funeral, mourners recite the traditional phrase: “Baruch dayan ha’emet,” “Blessed is the true judge.” In our deepest pain, we take a moment to acknowledge that even if we can’t understand God’s ways, God is the supreme judge and decision-maker.
After those words have been recited, the mourners enter a state known as aninut. This is the stage between death and burial that applies to the seven closest relatives of the deceased: A mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse. These are based on the rules God gave in Leviticus 21:1-4 to the Levites, the priests, as to whom they are allowed to have contact with after a person dies.
These mourners are not allowed to perform many of the biblical commandments, nor are they required to do the usual things Jews are obligated to do, like blessing their food, studying God’s Word, or praying. During this time of intense grief, it is hard to focus on your relationship with God. Judaism recognizes this stage of grief, and allows the mourners to simply focus on their loss during this time.
Moreover, it is taught: “do not comfort the mourner during the time that his deceased lies (still unburied) before him.” At this stage, the grief is too intense for any effort at consolation. Simply the presence of friends and family is what is most needed.
Part of the grieving process at this time includes the tearing of clothing, just as Jacob did when he heard about the supposed death of Joseph: “Then Jacob tore his clothes . . .” (Genesis 37:34). This practice, known as keriah, symbolizes the emotional tear in our hearts, our deep grief and pain.
The funeral typically takes place 24 hours after the death of a loved one, although in today’s world, allowances are made for mourners to travel and for appropriate arrangements to be made. As with all Jewish funerals, eulogies intended to evoke tears and prayers in honor of the deceased are uttered.
The funeral concludes with prayers that affirm the Jewish belief that the soul is now with God and that God is great. Finally, the mourners walk through two lines formed by those gathered at the funeral. They are showered with words of comfort and the unspoken message from their friends and family that they are not alone – they are surrounded by love and support.
With that, the mourners proceed to the next stage.
For more on the Jewish mourning traditions and practices, download the Limmud (“study” in Hebrew) on mourning that Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein wrote in November 2017 about his own journey in grieving his father’s passing.