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As a rabbi, I have been frequently confronted with questions from my congregants about interfaith mourning issues. Here are some of the responses I have given over the years.
Do I visit the family of the deceased before the funeral?
The Jewish burial usually takes place within a few days of the death. It is often a time of confusion and disorientation for the bereaved, who are engrossed with myriad details arranging for the funeral and making other decisions. A telephone call to the survivors relaying your personal condolences would be appropriate at this time-as any visitation before the funeral is mostly confined to close family members and friends. Your visit will be most appreciated after the funeral .
How about sending flowers?
In ancient days, fragrant flowers and spices were used to offset the odor of decaying bodies. Today, with refrigeration, flowers are generally not part of the Jewish funeral. The method of tribute considered more lasting and meaningful is a contribution to a hospital, hospice, synagogue, or medical research foundation. Check the obituary: "In lieu of flowers please make contributions to..." If in doubt, contact the funeral director to determine whether specific wishes were cited by the mourners.
Can I see the dead body?
Public viewing and cosmetization of the body are against Jewish law (there is no equivalent to the Christian wake). The rabbis urge that we remember the deceased as that person was in life. However, the family may desire to view the body privately before the funeral begins since the casket is permanently sealed before the service. Embalming is prohibited in traditional Judaism except when government regulations require it or when the body is to be transported a long distance for burial.
What about cremation?
Jewish law forbids cremation , or the reduction of the body to ashes, as it was thought to violate the principle of natural decomposition and to prevent bodily resurrection. Many Reform rabbis, however, do permit cremation as a viable option. If possible, the question should be settled before death with a discussion with the family rabbi.
Where is the funeral held?
While years ago, most Jewish funerals were held in the home, today they are usually conducted at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery chapel, or graveside. Funerals are held during the day and not on the Sabbath (Saturday) or major Jewish holidays.
To go to the funeral or not?
Should you go? The simple answer is, "Yes!" Being there demonstrates that although someone has died, friends like you still remain. Being there is the most eloquent statement that you care. The Jewish funeral is a ceremony where no one may be invited, but ALL are encouraged to attend. For good reason, too. Pain suffered in solitude is more difficult to bear.
What happens at the funeral?
Usually, an ordained rabbi will conduct the funeral service, though any informed Jew might perform it. Members of the family and friends of different faiths sometimes share memories of the deceased. Prayers are recited in English and Hebrew. Jewish worshipers do not kneel at services. All that is required is to stand or be seated at appropriate moments of the liturgy. As a sign of respect, hats or yarmulkes may be distributed. Wearing one is not a contradiction of Christian principal. I recall the late Richard Cardinal Cushing coming to my synagogue and insisting that he wear his own yarmulke, with its personal, reverent memories of Israel.
Is it acceptable to go to the cemetery?
In Judaism accompanying the dead to the grave is considered the highest form of loving kindness. The funeral does not end in the chapel, but after the deceased has been accompanied to the final burial place. Witnessing the burial emphasizes the importance of leave-taking and affords basic emotional tools for dealing with unfinished feelings.
What happens after the interment?
Shiva (meaning 'seven') consists of the traditional seven days of mourning -- although some Reform congregations observe a three-day period of mourning instead -- during which most family members remain at home and refrain from their ordinary pursuits and occupations. During shiva friends and relatives visit the home of the deceased to offer comfort to the family. Children may go back to school for some of this time.
Shiva is a time during which the community reaches out to the bereaved. Friends and family members demonstrate their concern and love. The first meal after the funeral, traditionally prepared and delivered by others, traditionally includes bread or rolls, the staff of life, and hard-boiled eggs, symbolizing the cycle of life and death.
Sh'loshim (meaning 'thirty') is the thirty-day period after death during which mourners gradually return to their normal living but avoid joyful social events. For most mourners, Sh-loshim concludes the period of bereavement, but for those whose parents have died, mourning concludes twelve months from the day of the death.
The Yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death, is observed annually on the date of death, commencing on the preceding day and concluding on the anniversary day at sunset. Kaddish, a special prayer for the dead, is recited in the synagogue and a Yahrzeit candle is lit.
Any time after Sh-loshim and usually before the first year of mourning is over, an unveiling -- or commemoration of the tombstone or plaque -- is held at the grave. Unveilings are not held on the Sabbath or Festivals.
What does one say when visiting the family?
The obituary in the newspaper usually lists the place and time the mourners will accepting shiva calls. When you enter, custom has it that one should remain silent and permit the bereaved to speak first. Take your cues from the mourners. You might share some remembrances. If you write a personal letter, it will be cherished forever. Encourage the family to relate their reminiscences and feelings. Their emotions may be nonverbal. If they cry, tell them that this is a normal way to express emotion. Most importantly, your presence will afford them comfort and reassurance. For people of all religions, grief shared is grief diminished.
Is there a Jewish view of life after death?
There are a variety of Jewish views of the afterlife. Judaism has no dogma. All Jews accept the fact that death is real and that memories never die. Some believe in the immortality of the soul and the reunion of body and soul. Only God can completely discern the mysteries of life and death. The emphasis in Judaism is upon life and living.