Till Death Do Us Part

By Anita Diamant


April 1999

When my father died three years ago, Jewish tradition gave me the words and a way through a terrible and chaotic period. The first week after his death had a name: shiva. The first month was called shloshim. The first year ended with a yahrzeit candle, lit in his memory.

The Jewish rituals and customs for death and mourning are guided by two basic principles: respect for the dead and comfort for the bereaved. Respect for the dead (in Hebrew, kevod ha-met) is expressed with an almost Zen-like simplicity; the body is viewed as the soul’s vessel, which deserves to be returned to the earth in a pure and natural state. Comforting the mourner (in Hebrew, nichum avelim) means both encouraging the bereaved to take the time and space to confront their loss head-on and leading them back into the world of the living in a step-by-step process.

headstones at a Jewish cemetery with rocks left by visitorsRespect for the dead: Judaism mandates that the body be treated with awe and reverence. Embalming or viewing of the body are usually not permitted because they tend to turn the person into a “thing.” The corpse is cared for tenderly; washed, wrapped in plain cotton or linen shrouds, and buried in an unadorned wooden casket. The simplicity of shrouds and caskets may have been a way to avoid Egyptian excesses, and also to protect the poor from embarrassment.

While the idea of handling the body as little as possible is important, the mitzvah of “saving a soul” (in Hebrew, pikuah nefesh) is considered paramount and nearly all Jewish authorities now support organ donation and permit autopsy in the service of medical research.

According to Jewish custom, the body is buried quickly; within twenty-four hours if possible. This is both a token of respect and a way of sparing the mourners’ feelings, since the healing work of grief cannot begin until after the funeral.

Jewish funerals are simple, even austere–the tradition considers flowers and music too festive for such a somber occasion. The funeral focuses on the loss of a unique soul and thus the core of the service is the eulogy (in Hebrew, hesped).

In marked contrast to Christian funerals, the Jewish funeral liturgy does not speak of death as a “better place.” While there is no one single Jewish view of the afterlife (Jews have embraced beliefs that range from simple decomposition to reincarnation, from elaborate depictions of heaven and hell to humanistic metaphors about the tangible legacy of good works) the liturgy makes no mention of the afterlife, or of a reunion with God or with family members who have passed away.

Perhaps the most powerful custom of the Jewish funeral comes after the casket is lowered and family members shovel the first clods of earth onto it. That terrible sound makes it virtually impossible to deny the reality of death. Painful as that sound is to the bereaved, it makes the healing work of grief possible.

Comforting the bereaved: From the moment the funeral ends, all attention shifts to the care of the bereaved. Only close family members–spouses, siblings, children and parents–are required to “sit shiva.” Sometimes, other family members choose to do so as well. Shiva (from the Hebrew number seven) is a time for facing the whole complicated gamut of emotions that follow a death: fear, anger, sorrow, terror, emptiness, even relief. The bereaved are taken care of by family and friends, who come to share memories and to make up the minyan that recites the Kaddish prayer.

Traditionally, mourners “say Kaddish” for their loved ones daily during the week of shiva, and the month of shloshim. Children are required to say Kaddish for parents for a full year; bereaved spouses, siblings, and parents often do so as well.

Kaddish, a prayer recited at virtually every Jewish worship service, makes no mention of death or mourning. Like the Christian Lord’s Prayer, Kaddish is a doxology–a litany of praise for God. However, the centuries-old association of Kaddish with bereavement, and the familiar sound and cadence of the prayer, make its recitation a form of comfort that transcends language.

The fact that Kaddish must be said in a minyan is a powerful, almost behavioral, element in the Jewish approach to death. Community support is fundamental to the Jewish response to bereavement; the tradition seems to know that, without the support of others, the burden is often too heavy for the mourner to bear. So, mourners who might otherwise withdraw from the world are required to become part of a group, which probably includes other mourners who can provide companionship and understanding.

Mourning a Loved One of another faith: The whole range of Jewish mourning customs is open to anyone mourning for a person of another faith. For example: Some people say Kaddish for their parents who aren’t Jewish; the death of a friend may prompt the wearing of a torn ribbon (k’riah) that denotes a mourner; and anyone can light a yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a dear one’s death. And of course, any synagogue member can request bereavement counseling from his or her rabbi, regardless of the deceased’s religion–or his own.

A death in an interfaith family can expose unreconciled issues and profound differences. Old feelings of abandonment and loss may rise to the surface. But do not assume you’re the first person to face a dilemma of this sort. Some rabbis can act as thoughtful sounding boards, and it’s always a good idea to seek out others who have had similar experiences.

For the most part, however, the disagreements that divide interfaith families when death comes are not all that different from the ones that cause conflict in all-Jewish or all-Christian families. Most extended families are split over religious observance and practice; some members are more traditional than others, some are affiliated with congregations while others are not. Many interfaith families have found ways to honor both traditions and meet everyone’s spiritual needs: for example, attending the Catholic funeral Mass for a parent with siblings and other family members; and then returning home to sit shiva with synagogue members and friends.


About Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer who lives in the Boston area. She is a member of Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley.