What To Do When Death Comes
A Guide to Beth El Families
by Rabbi David Thomas
“More than I have learned from my teachers I have learned from my colleagues. More than I’ve learned from my colleagues I have learned from my students.” – Rabbi Hanina
I am grateful to the many families who allowed me into their lives at their time of loss. They have been my greatest teachers. May the memories of their loved ones forever be a blessing. – Rabbi David Thomas
It has been said that if social scientists were to design a program for managing grief and loss, that program would look much like what Judaism prescribes for those who have lost a loved one. Our tradition offers us thousands of years of wisdom that constitute a practical guide on how to confront the reality of loss in our lives, encouraging us to honor our loved ones and allowing us to move forward with a sense of blessing and healing in our lives.
Four basic principles govern the Jewish approach to death and mourning:
- Recognition of the reality of death — The purpose of Jewish rituals of mourning–beginning even before the death and continuing beyond the time when official mourning is completed–is to help us accept the reality of our loss, to honor our loved ones, to ease the pain of loss and help us rebuild our lives in the face of that loss.
- Moderation in grief — It is healthy and natural to cry out in the hour of our pain. It is good for us to recognize the depth of that pain and to affirm our sense of loss. Only by working through these feelings can we regain a sense of wholeness and turn towards life anew. We should not, however, grieve too long. Eventually we must bring our public mourning to an end. Jewish tradition, therefore, puts formal limits on mourning. The stages of mourning were established to help us express our grief, limit our mourning and return to our normal pursuits.
- Respect for the dead — The Torah requires that everyone, even the basest criminal, be accorded the honor of a proper and timely burial. Our tradition requires that the funeral and burial take place as soon as possible after death, usually within forty-eight hours. While accommodations can be made to allow family members to arrive from a distance, lengthy delays do no honor to the dead and prevent loved ones from beginning the process of grief and healing.
- Equality in death — Our tradition teaches us that we leave the world the way we came in. All of us are equal in death. This value is reflected in the requirement of being buried in a simple wooden casket, for example. All of the procedures and rituals surrounding the loss of a loved one are guided by the principles of simplicity and dignity.
Life After Death
From the beginning of time, human beings have hoped for, even yearned for, a meaningful existence after death. And yet death remains life’s greatest mystery. In spite of the spectrum of authentically Jewish views about life after death, the only guarantee we have is that we may live on eternally in our deeds, the ways we changed the world and in the memories of others. Our tradition teaches us that we can keep our loved ones alive through the blessing of their memory. Therefore, remembering, celebrating and honoring friends, teachers, and relatives, are sacred obligations. Ritual is the engine that drives these memories. Jewish ritual, therefore, is designed not only to comfort the mourner, but to recall and preserve the memories of those who have gone before us.
Jewish Stages of Grief
- Before death
- Dying – the Goses
- Aninut – from the death to the burial
- Aveilut – Shivah, from the burial for 7 days
- Sheloshim – 30 days following the burial
- Yahrzeit – 1 year and beyond
My Loved One Has Died, What Do I Do Now?
1. Call the Funeral Home
- You will need a Death Certificate, which the hospital, nursing home or hospice workers will provide.
- Please see below for information on Funeral Homes
2. Call the Rabbi – Before setting a time for the funeral
- Office 978-443-9622
- Home: 978-443-4196
3. Set a time and place for the funeral
- You may chose a graveside or chapel service. In some cases, a service at Beth El may be appropriate. Consult with the Rabbi.
4. Notify family and close friends.
5. Beth El’s Hevra Kaddisha will contact you
- They will inform the congregation, announce shivah times, and arrange minyan services.
Decisions You Will Need to Make
- Burial plot (if not already purchased)
- graveside, chapel or synagogue service
- type of casket (we strongly recommend the plain pine box)
- Traditional Taharah? (cleansing the body by a Hevra Kaddisha)
- Burial in shrouds, or clothing
- Traditional shmirah (watchers for the body)
Please read this guide and consult with the rabbi as need be.
Information You Will Need
- Legal name of the deceased
- Social Security Number
- Date of Birth
- Hebrew Name
With the blessing of modern advances in medical science, people are living longer lives. As a result, we are much more likely to be faced with a host of medical realities that need to be addressed. Although it is not always possible to anticipate every possible medical circumstance, you should make clear–in writing–your feelings about such matters as resuscitation orders and life support. In addition to support and counsel you may receive from your healthcare providers, please do not hesitate to turn to the rabbi or to a hospital chaplain for guidance in making these important life decisions.
It is appropriate to make known your wishes concerning burial, cemetery location, and the like. Conflicts between family members are less likely to arise if you have clearly stated your wishes about these and related matters.
It is essential that you consult an attorney and write a will in which you dispose of your material assets. In this way, you may spare your loved ones many legal and other problems. You can also express other intentions in a will. Your desire to make bequests to particular charities belongs in your will. Of course, you can and should make known your wishes about some of these matters by a less formal written document. Furthermore, you should consider how you are going to pass along your ethical and spiritual legacy as well. Many Jews write “ethical wills.” These express to your children and descendants your love and regard for them as well as the values by which you have sought to live your life.
Judaism permits organ transplants in the hope of saving life. If you wish to donate organs of your body for further use or for medical research, your will should say so. You should, in addition, make this known your family, for it is imperative that organ donation be considered before death, as organs must be kept alive and specially cared for in order to be transplantable.
One of the first things any newly established Jewish community does is to provide for a Jewish cemetery. This tradition goes back to Abraham, who upon the death of his wife Sarah, purchased a plot for her in the Land of Israel. The Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts (JCAM) operates several Jewish cemeteries in the Boston area, including Beit Olam, located in the town of Wayland. In addition, many of the towns in the Boston area operate community cemeteries with Jewish sections. You may purchase cemetery plots by contacting JCAM directly at 617-244-6509, or by inquiring of your local town.
Congregation Beth El Can Help
When a death is imminent, or as soon as possible after you learn of it, please inform the rabbi and/or the cantor by telephoning the Temple office 978-443-9622. You must also contact a funeral director, Click here for a list of Funeral Homes to arrange for the collection of the remains and to begin making funeral arrangements.
The rabbi and cantor are anxious to help you, and they will make every effort to accommodate their schedules to your need, but it is not always possible. If they are consulted before arrangements for the funeral have been made, they are much more likely to be able to assist you. No announcement of the day or time of the funeral should be made before arrangements have been agreed upon with the rabbi or the cantor, as well as the funeral home and cemetery. The rabbi and cantor are available for counsel, advice, and help.
The rabbi or our office staff will inform the Hevra Kadisha, who will contact you within 24-48 hours to arrange for shivah minyanim and to prepare a suitable notice to the congregational community. If the deceased was a member of Beth El, the Board of Directors will notify all the members of the congregation by phone.
Because their first priority is service to our congregation, the rabbi and cantor are available to be of help to nonmembers and family outside of the immediate household only as their schedules permit. On occasions when they are out of town or otherwise unavailable, they will be glad to assist you in locating an officiant who is available.
There are several funeral homes in the Boston area that have served many of our members and have proved reliable and helpful. You will find a List of Funeral Homes in the last section of this guide.
The temple sanctuary is sometimes available for a funeral service. In general, sanctuary services are reserved for deceased members of the congregation. Please understand that the sanctuary cannot be used when other temple activities, such as religious school classes, are scheduled. There is no charge to Beth El members for the use of the sanctuary other than the cost of unusual custodial expenses.
Dying, Between Death and Burial, The Body, Cremation
Dying –The Goses – Goses is the term for a person in the process of active dying.
When a person has received a terminal diagnosis, or they are approaching the end of life, it is natural for them or for their family members to begin to plan for their death. At this time, it is important to remember one of the core values of the Jewish tradition: “One who is dying is a living person in every respect.” We take this to mean that one should not make funeral arrangements while a loved one is still alive. Rather, it is important to take advantage of their final days to engage with them as fully as possible. There may be opportunities for one who is dying to review their life, to express their hopes and their fears, to offer blessings to their loved ones, and to reconcile differences.
Jewish tradition provides the dying with the rite called viddui, or confession. This prayer enables the dying to reconcile themselves with God and with their own souls, by clearing the slate of past failings and disappointments. Related to this is the importance of turning to family members and friends with words of forgiveness, understanding and reconciliation. Opportunities to offer and to receive forgiveness should be taken if at all possible.
It is a sacred obligation to pray both privately and in the synagogue on behalf of the ill and the dying, as well as for those who need strength in the time of their anguish. Psalms 6, 23, 88, 121, and 130, among others, can be a source of comfort and strength. Please contact the rabbi for additional resources for hope, healing and inspiration.
Aninut – The Period of Time Between the Death and Burial
Tradition recognizes the death of any Jew as a communal loss. Therefore, everyone who is present at the time of death performs the mitzvah of tearing Keriah – rending a garment to enact the separation that has taken place between the deceased and their loved ones.
While we all feel a sense of loss upon the death of a close friend, a grandparent, or others, the Jewish tradition recognizes seven official categories of mourner: one who has lost a mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son, or spouse. These are the relationships for which we are obligated to mourn as a Jew. For relationships outside of these, our tradition permits us to find other opportunities to express our grief and to share our losses.
“Ha-osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah – One who is engaged in a mitzvah is exempt from all other mitzvot.” During the time between the death and the burial, the mourners’ sole religious obligation is to attend to the arrangements for the funeral and the shivah. It is a mitzvah to notify all members of the family when a death has occurred, even those who are estranged. If at all possible, one should take this opportunity to heal wounds by bringing family members together.
Unless you are a very close friend or relative, it is better to postpone a visit or a call to the house of the bereaved until after the funeral. Our tradition guides us not to try to offer words of consolation in the hour of a person’s most intense grief. After the funeral, during shivah and in the weeks and months that follow, there will be ample opportunities to offer comfort and support.
The human body is a sacred vessel that bears a person’s soul during life. Even after death the body is treated with the utmost respect. By tradition, the body is not left unattended before the burial. Jewish funeral homes will be happy to offer the services of a shomer, someone to watch over the body prior to the funeral service. Many liberal Jews, however, are satisfied with the presence of the usual attendants at the funeral home.
Tradition calls for the body to be ritually washed, a cleansing called taharah, “purification.” The body is then dressed in a white linen shrouds and placed in a plain wooden casket. Our sages prescribed the use of shrouds in order that rich and poor alike would be treated equally in their death. Be that as it may, it is permissible to dress the deceased in his or her own clothing. Many Jews choose to bury their dead wearing a tallit, with one of the fringes cut off as a symbol of death.
Jewish law disapproves of autopsies, except in cases where it would directly benefit the living. A routine autopsy in the name of general medical research, whose benefit is indirect and perhaps remote in time, is not countenanced.
Embalming is a practice that entails additional and unnecessary expense. It is prohibited by Jewish law and custom, and it is not required by civil law.
Public viewing of the body prior to the funeral service is not permitted by Jewish tradition. Family members are strongly discouraged from viewing the body privately. Thus, Jewish law would have us remember our loved ones as they were when they were living. The casket will be closed at all funeral services conducted by our clergy.
By its nature, cremation involves the violent destruction of the human body. The decision to cremate is not supported by Jewish tradition: “Out of the earth we were formed and to the earth we shall be returned.” In view of our experience of the Holocaust, and in light of the emphasis our tradition places on the sanctity of the body as a sacred vessel, in-ground burial is the preferred choice for the vast majority of Jews. Furthermore, when a cremation takes place, it puts an additional burden on members of the family who must make a series of decisions about the nature and the timing of their grief process. Because the timing of the memorial service and shivah is tied to the burial, mourners lose the predictable structure of the Jewish grief process which provides meaning and comfort. Nevertheless, the rabbi and cantor will officiate at a memorial service that involves cremation. However, cremated remains may not be present or displayed at the funeral service. Of course, the clergy will provide comfort and support to all our congregational families regardless of the decisions they make about the disposition of the corpse. Families who choose cremation are strongly encouraged to bury the remains in a Jewish cemetery (where permitted) and to erect a permanent monument to remember and honor the deceased.
Shivah – Seven Days of Mourning
Typically, the mourners return home from the funeral service to a meal prepared for them by friends, neighbors, and fellow congregants. This meal of consolation is prescribed by tradition, and mourners should not have to prepare it. When desired, Beth El’s Hevra Kadisha or Hevra Mishpacha will help arrange this meal, as well as services to be held in the home.
Upon returning home, the family kindles a seven-day memorial light. This special candle which burns throughout shivah may be provided by the funeral home.
The word shivah means seven, and our tradition prescribes seven days of mourning, beginning with and including the day of the funeral, and one Shabbat. Although one rises from their shivah on the morning of the seventh day, that day counts as a full day of shivah. Mourners stay at home throughout shivah except when it is genuinely impossible. Liberal Jews are strongly encouraged to observe the full seven days of tradition. Jewish tradition provides an accommodation for those who would be severely economically impacted by refraining from work for the full seven days. In case of real economic hardship, formal mourning may be limited to three days.
It is appropriate to spend time during shivah reflecting on the memories of the one whom one is mourning. Shivah is a good time to devote some time each day to reading and studying Jewish sources, and in meditating on the spiritual dimensions of life and death.
If a major holiday begins during shivah, the rest of shivah is canceled. Major holidays include Passover, Shavuot, Succoth, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. If a death takes place during the week of the festival, shivah is postponed until the conclusion of the festival. Please consult with the rabbi on the best ways to handle these and other unusual circumstances.
Traditionally, mourners are obligated to say Kaddish every day. In our community, many families choose to hold minyan services in their home each night during the shivah. Beth El’s Hevra Kadisha is prepared to arrange leaders for these services. While our goal is to ensure the presence of tenJewish adults, we would not discourage mourners from saying Kaddish with fewer than a traditional minyan. These minyan services provide structured times for visitors, as well as opportunities to continue sharing treasured remembrances of our loved ones.
Although Shabbat is counted as one of the days of shivah, it is not a day of public mourning. Mourners should suspend their shivah at home, attend services at Beth El and recite Kaddish with their community.
Visitors should not disturb the privacy of the mourners before the funeral. Mourners appreciate the thoughtfulness of visitors who wait until they can provide comfort when it is most needed — after the funeral or even days later when most people have left.
Although it is kind to bring gifts of food to the family, tzedakah is even more appropriate and serves to honor the memory of the deceased by supporting the values that guided their lives.
After sharing a few words of consolation, visitors should allow the conversation to be guided by the mourners. Visitors should avoid frivolity or lighthearted conversations about sports or business unless the mourners choose to direct conversations toward those themes. Most often, silence and sheer physical presence at the side of the mourner is the best way to offer comfort. Click here for a helpful video about paying a shivah call, and being a friend to a mourner.
Since shivah is not an ordinary social occasion, mourners should not feel obliged to act as hosts to their visitors, who have come to offer comfort, not to seek entertainment. It is a good idea for mourners to set aside a part of their home for the privacy of the family. If a mourner becomes tired or feels overwhelmed, they may retire to that part of the house without feeling the need to excuse themselves.
Sheloshim — 30 days
Mourners continue to recite Kaddish daily during the first thirty days after the burial of a loved one. During this period of Sheloshim, it is customary to refrain from public entertainment or celebrations. However, one may attend a baby naming, a wedding service, or a bar or bat mitzvah for an immediate relative. While it is permissible to attend such simchas, one should refrain from attending parties or receptions following such events. In the period of Sheloshim one may also attend gatherings or meetings for congregational, civic or philanthropic purposes. At congregation Beth El, it is our custom to read the names of deceased family members at each Shabbat evening and morning service throughout the period of Sheloshim.
Dedicating a Gravestone (Unveiling)
Though not required by Jewish law, it has become customary to conduct a brief service of dedication for a gravestone once a permanent marker has been erected at the grave. Often referred to as an “Unveiling,” this service can take place any time after one month following the death and up to a year later. It is important to remember that this service is not meant to be a second funeral, but a time to mark the end of a formal period of mourning. When family members feel the pain of their loss has transformed into fondness of memory, they should choose a convenient time to gather together at the cemetery to recite brief prayers and informally share remembrances. At the conclusion of the service, or any time one visits the grave, it is customary to place a stone on the marker to indicate that the dead are not forgotten and to testify to the presence of loved ones. It is meritorious for family members to conduct the Unveiling rituals on their own, and clergy are not required. The rabbi and/or cantor will be happy to provide you with guidance, as well as a selection of liturgies appropriate to the occasion.
Yahrzeit – The Anniversary of the Death
The mourner honors a deceased parent by reciting Kaddish daily for the first eleven months of the first year, and thereafter on the Yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death – and at Yizkor services on Yom Kippur and the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot).
After the first year, Kaddish is recited on the anniversary of the death, or on the Shabbat nearest the anniversary, using the secular or Hebrew calendar, as you prefer. It is customary to mark each Yahrzeit by giving tzedakah in memory of our beloved.
Yizkor, which means “remembrance,” originated as a prayer reminding God of the merits of our relatives who have died, in hopes that their souls would continue to be bound up in the bond of eternity. Today, Yizkor continues to provide great comfort and meaning for the living, as we remember our loved ones with prayers, and gifts of tzedakah that perpetuate the memories and the values that guided their lives. At Beth El, Yizkor is observed with a special service on Yom Kippur afternoon, on the morning of Shavuot and on the Sunday afternoons that occur during Sukkot and Pesach.
Other Aspects and Practices
Honoring Our Loved Ones at Beth El
Mourners are invited to remember and honor their loved ones by purchasing a nameplate to be displayed on our Yahrzeit Memorial Board in the Temple sanctuary.
Interfaith Families and Jews-by-Choice
The guiding principle is that a Jew should mourn his or her relatives, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as a Jew. Therefore, one who converted to Judaism, for example, is encouraged by our tradition (but not required) to say Kaddish for a non-Jewish family member who has died. The Hevra Kadisha will arrange Shivah minyanim as needed. Of course, funeral rites should always be carried out according to the faith tradition of the deceased and in keeping with their wishes. Jewish law permits rabbis to officiate and even co-officiate with other clergy at the funerals of non-Jews, should this be deemed desirable and appropriate.
At Beth El, we will make every effort to comfort and support non-Jewish members of our congregation who experience a loss in every way that is fitting and appropriate. This may include conducting non-denominational services of remembrance in the home of the mourners in order to encourage members of our community to visit and provide consolation and comfort. Please consult with the rabbi for further guidance.
Judaism has always taken a compassionate view of suicides and their families. As you may know, suicide was forbidden by religious and secular law, and therefore certain funeral rites were withheld in the case of a suicide. This policy was applied only to people who committed suicide who were thought to be rational and in control of themselves. Jewish law then established a presumption that suicide is always committed under stress, and in general it could be assumed that a person who took his or her own life had been emotionally or mentally disturbed. This makes it possible to treat the suicide as though it had been a natural or accidental death. In the spirit of compassion that characterizes our tradition, liberal Jewish practice makes no distinction between one member of the community or another in regard to the manner of their death, and therefore the funeral service and burial are not in any way altered.
Other Traditional Practices
- Washing the hands upon leaving the cemetery
- Burying no jewelry when the body is committed to the ground. Mitzvot, good deeds, are our only companions in the world to come.
- Sitting on low stools as a symbol of grief and bereavement during shivah
- Covering the mirrors in the house of mourning so as not to focus on personal appearance or vanity
- Mourners abstaining from the following activities: going out of the house, working, attending a simcha, learning Torah, sexual relations, wearing leather shoes or new garments, bathing, cutting the hair, greeting people
I wish to acknowledge with gratitude Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l, whose booklet on death and mourning, “The Valley of the Shadow,” was a helpful resource in preparing this material. I am especially grateful for all that Rabbi Stern taught me about being present for grieving families and the enduring strength of the human spirit.
Funeral Directors, Cemeteries & Monuments
Brezniak-Rodman Funeral Directors, Inc.
1251 Washington Street
West Newton, MA 02465
Levine Chapels, Inc.
470 Harvard Street
Brookline, MA 02446
Levine Chapels is a full service, Jewish funeral home in the greater Boston area. The Chapel staff is trained and licensed to provide pre-need counseling and advice to families about the benefits of prearranging services. Levine Chapels offers school groups and adult groups from area synagogues a chance to tour the Chapel and learn about the Jewish tradition. Levine Chapel also has an aftercare program for those families, adults and children, who want information and education about the grieving process.
Schlossberg-Solomon Memorial Chapels
824 Washington Street
Canton, MA 02021
This is a family owned and managed business with longtime roots in the South Shore.
Stanetsky Memorial Chapels
1668 Beacon Street
Brookline, MA 02446
The Stanetsky Memorial Chapels provide bereavement travel services, a compassion hotline and aftercare planners. All elements of K’vod Ha’Met are observed.
Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts
189 Wells Avenue, Third Floor
Newton Centre, MA 02459
The Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, JCAM, owns or manages 100 Jewish cemeteries within the Commonwealth. Call 617-244-6509 or firstname.lastname@example.org with questions regarding purchase, ownership, care and maintenance of cemetery plots, restoration and preservation of Jewish cemeteries in Massachusetts.
Sharon Memorial Park
120 Canton Street
Sharon, MA 02067
Sharon Memorial Park provides interfaith sections and offers pre-need planning. It has an on-site administration building that is open six days a week.
2 Harvest Way
Westborough, MA 01581
Phone: 508 229-7778
Fax: 508 229-7705
American Memorials designs and installs granite, marble and bronze memorial products for all cemeteries in Massachusetts. Special discounts for pre-need monuments are provided, and staff can speak Russian and Hebrew.
232 Fuller Street
Everett, MA 02149
Slotnick, Canter, Schneider Memorial Group designs and installs memorial products in all cemeteries in Eastern Massachusetts.