Judaism teaches that death has its allotted place in the cycle of life.
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Some Useful Information
The following text has been edited from the pamphlet written by Joyce Rose entitled -‘When Someone Dies’. It is very comprehensive so please feel free to print it and read it off-line.
If you have recently suffered a bereavement and would like to contact someone from the synagogue please click here for our contact details.
Judaism teaches that death has its allotted place in the cycle of life, and in the meantime we should concentrate on our behaviour in this world rather than speculate about the world to come. We have to choose how to deal with death and loss, for ourselves and for others, so that we can go forward, to life.
At The Time Of Death
If death follows an illness it is probable that the rabbi and other caring members of the congregation will already be in touch. Indeed, when death is felt to be approaching, some people find it helpful to ask the rabbi to visit. The support that has been given will then follow into the period of mourning. Traditionally, and as a natural response, a person who is thought to be dying should not be left alone.
When death occurs the body should be left with the hands lying alongside, not crossed over, and the lower jaw should be held in the normal position and not allowed to drop. At home a candle may be lit near the body. It has been the custom not to leave the body unattended.
You will, of course, have made sure that those who were close to the deceased receive the sad news quickly. Other people will share your sorrow and want to have the opportunity of attending the funeral and, on the principle that bad news travels fast, relatives, friends and members of your congregation will pass the message round. You may also decide to make an announcement in the Jewish, local or national press.
The largest burial society which caters for Reform Jews in Britain is the Jewish Joint Burial Society (JJBS), originally established by a group of Reform synagogues to meet their own needs and consisting of twenty-six member communities (not all Reform) at the time of writing, with a cemetery at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire (on part of the land of the Western Synagogue Cemetery, Bulls Cross Ride) and with cremation facilities at Hoop Lane Crematorium, Golders Green in London, and elsewhere. Nineteen Reform congregations are full members of the JJBS and, in addition, seven more, for whom Cheshunt is geographically unsuitable, subscribe to its Funeral Expenses Scheme.
If your synagogue is a full member of JJBS, and you or your partner joined before reaching the age of 50, you will be making a full contribution to JJBS and will be entitled to both burial rights and basic funeral expenses. Individuals are not at present able to join the Society directly. Fully paid-up members qualify for a standard funeral or cremation, the only extra charges being for cars in addition to the hearse, and for the special opening of a previously reserved grave.
If these options are not used, a cash payment will be made to the synagogue towards expenses incurred for a funeral elsewhere. Similarly, if your synagogue participates only in the Funeral Expenses Scheme, the payment of a pre-arranged sum is made to the synagogue towards the cost of the funeral.
Members joining the scheme when over the age of 50 lose some of the benefits; there is a sliding scale of payment to be made towards a funeral, or a reduction in the amount normally received from the Funeral Expenses Scheme. However, rights which are already established are transferable between participating synagogues within the JJBS. You can get this information from the synagogues involved, or from the JJBS direct.
Arranging the Funeral
When arranging a funeral, it is usually the next-of-kin whose views are paramount, but the actual organising may be deputed.
Whichever burial society you are dealing with, there are certain basic legal requirements which have to be met, and the burial society will guide you through them. You will be asked to obtain a certificate from the doctor who has recently seen the deceased person, stating the cause of death, and this will have to be taken to the Registrar for Deaths in the district in which the death occurred (not necessarily the same as where the deceased lived). You need to obtain from the Registrar a certificate giving you authority to arrange the funeral, as without this the funeral arrangements cannot proceed. Once the burial society is in possession of the Registrar’s certificate they will make all the arrangements for the preparation of the body, the coffin, the cemetery or the crematorium.
You will probably need extra copies of the Registrar’s certificate, perhaps for legal purposes, and it is just as well to get them at the same time. The Registrar will make a small charge for these.
There may be circumstances in which the doctor or hospital is unable to issue a certificate without referring the matter to a coroner. The coroner may then decide that a post-mortem or an inquest is necessary. You will be told what you have to do should this occur. Registrars will usually do their best to enable you to go ahead as soon as possible but legal requirements cannot normally be circumvented.
It is usual to hold a Jewish funeral as soon as possible after death. In some areas Registrars will make special arrangements to be available outside their normal office hours in order to assist the Jewish community. However, a funeral may be delayed for the reasons mentioned above, or to enable a close relative to attend from a distance, or if a death has occurred abroad. The burial society will be able to advise you throughout in making these arrangements, until the funeral can go ahead in the usual way.
Over the centuries and in different countries various funeral customs have developed. In this country we now use a simple wooden coffin in which the prepared body is placed, wrapped in a white linen garment or a tallit (prayer shawl). Small personal items may be included on request. The coffin itself is normally covered with a plain cloth during the service. There are usually no flowers at Jewish funerals here but non-Jewish friends and colleagues may not be aware of this. A rebuff can be avoided by arranging for floral tributes to be discreetly laid in an outside area, especially at a crematorium where facilities are provided
The wearing of black clothing as a sign of mourning has little basis in Jewish tradition. It is a matter of personal choice and most people prefer to wear quiet colours when attending a funeral.
Funerals do not take place on a Shabbat or on Yom Kippur and are unusual on a Festival.
The Funeral Service
The form of the funeral service will be found in a special book prepared by the rabbis of the Reform Movement and copies will be available for everyone to use at the funeral. The service, which is the same for burials and cremations, consists of psalms and special prayers accepting death as part of the reality of life coupled with a recognition of the grief it causes. There is also a hesped (address) concerning the departed one and the formal recital of the kaddish prayer. It can be helpful to look at this service beforehand or to discuss it with whoever will officiate at the funeral.
You will be asked the Hebrew name of the deceased. Failing this, the rabbi will use the English name or suggest a Hebrew equivalent if there is an obvious one. If the rabbi or officiant did not know the deceased well, information may be asked for on which to base the hesped in order to speak well of the person who has died. Alternatively, it may be possible to suggest someone of your own choosing who is more conversant with the qualities of the deceased to give the hesped.
After the hesped at the service, the congregation accompany the coffin to the graveside for the interment. It is traditional to recite psalms during this walk. The bearers will lower the coffin into the prepared grave but it is then the duty of everyone present, beginning with the family mourners, to cover the coffin with earth. When this has been done the service may be completed at the grave or on return to the ohel. A fountain of running water will be available for the symbolic washing of one’s hands on leaving the actual burial ground, after contact with the dead.
The service concludes with the recital of memorial prayers and the kaddish by the mourners. In case you are not familiar with this prayer, it is available in the funeral prayer book transliterated into English characters to help you read it. Sometimes it is considered more suitable for all present to recite this together, especially when there are no close relatives.
At the end of the service the mourners will be asked to sit whilst the traditional hope is pronounced that they “will be comforted with all the mourners for Zion and and Jerusalem.” There is then an opportunity for all those present to greet the mourners individually. The traditional greeting commonly used on such an occasion is “I wish you long life”, which is an encouragement to look in a forward direction, but there is a growing preference to use a more personal form of words.
The difference in the form of a cremation service from that of a burial service occurs at the time when the congregation would accompany the coffin to the grave. At this point the coffin is removed from the chapel during the prayers while the service continues in the usual way. The chapel is often decorated with flowers and a musical accompaniment can be arranged.
Following a cremation the ashes will be stored temporarily at the crematorium. As the person who has arranged the cremation, you will probably be asked how you would like them disposed of. They may be lodged in a columbarium or you may want them dispersed in a garden of remembrance.
The kaddish prayer, of ancient origin, is recited responsively and in the original Aramaic which was the language spoken by Jews after the Babylonian exile. It is popularly thought of as a mourner’s prayer but this usage is comparatively recent. It is in fact a prayer devoted to praise of God, affirmation of life and hope for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. Traditionally recited in various forms at the end of sections of the services, and in extended form at the end of a session of communal study, it is not said in private but on public occasions in the midst of a congregation. In Reform congregations we do not insist on the statutory minyan (quorum of ten men) – any group of people coming together for prayer is accepted as a congregation for this purpose.
So you will see that the kaddish is not a prayer for the dead but, in keeping with the concept of praising God in bad times as well as in good, has come to be associated with times of mourning for the death of someone dear to us. It is the custom to face towards Jerusalem (the East) whilst saying the kaddish.
The Mourner’s Kaddish is said at the funeral, at all services attended during the mourning period, and again each year at services on the yahrzeit (anniversary); also at yizkor (memorial service) on the Day of Atonement and some of the Festivals (see below).
Stages of Mourning – Shivah
The periods of mourning are graduated and help us move from the most intense stage at the time of death through the first year of bereavement.
During the period between the death and the funeral the bereaved person is in a state of aninut and is called an onen. The onen may well be in a state of shock but, at the same time, there are arrangements for the funeral to be made and decisions to be taken. Close friends or relatives not directly involved may be of great assistance. However, it is the next of kin who must make the decisions in keeping with their own feelings.
The mourners who are formally acknowledged in a religious sense and have a role in the proceedings are parents, husbands and wives, children and siblings of the deceased. The prescribed period of mourning for a parent lasts for one year. For husbands and wives, brothers and sisters and for children it is thirty days, of which the first seven constitute the shivah period, but all say kaddish for eleven months. Half-brothers, half-sisters and adopted children should be included.
The traditional shivah lasts from the return home after the funeral until the seventh day. The day of the funeral itself counts as the first day, and as we consider from a Jewish point of view that a day starts at sunset on the previous evening, the first night of shivah is actually part of the second day. The seventh day is usually concluded after one hour in the morning. Thus, if a funeral takes place on a Monday, a full shivah would terminate on the following Sunday morning.
It is a period when no work or other regular activity is undertaken and friends call to offer comfort and take part in daily services which enable the avelim (mourners, in the singular avel) to say kaddish. The mourners will have returned from the funeral to a traditional meal of condolence, usually containing a hard-boiled egg as a symbol of the continuation of life. A yahrzeit candle will be lit and they will sit all week on low chairs which may be available for this purpose through the synagogue, who will also lend extra prayer books. In addition two ordinary candles are usually lit to serve as a focal point during prayers, and texts of consolation are on view on the mantelpiece or somewhere similar.
In practice the length of time that you sit shivah is a matter of personal choice, though you may also wish to fall in with the views of other members of the family. Some have one-night shivah only, some three days, whilst others keep the full period.
Mourning is not appropriate on Shabbat so shivah is not observed then. Mourners may feel ready to attend synagogue, and in some synagogues on Friday night they wait until after the introductory Sabbath psalms before entering. It is also usual not to have prayers on Saturday night after Shabbat though friends may like to call at that time. Shivah is terminated at the onset of a Festival but if a funeral is held in the middle days of a Festival (Pesach or Sukkot) shivah should be held after the end of the festival.
Sometimes a Memorial Service in the synagogue is felt to be desirable, especially if the deceased has been particularly well-known, and this may be held after the shloshim (see below). You can discuss it with the rabbi.
Stages of Mourning – After the Shivah
The first thirty days after the funeral are called shloshim, and include the shivah. The official period of mourning for a brother, sister, partner or young person covers this period whilst for those who have lost a parent it is a year, although kaddish is said for eleven months. Traditionally the death of a parent was seen as the greatest loss, because of the parent/pupil relationship, but nowadays this may not reflect the actual feelings involved.
After the initial mourning period, whatever its length, mourners will have to get on with their lives in some way. There may be business or legal affairs to be dealt with or consideration of a return to work. As the supportive framework of the shivah begins to slip away, this can be a crucial period of readjustment and may take time. Whilst festivities may not be in keeping with their feelings, religious ceremonies such as bar mitzvah or a wedding should not be postponed – a quieter celebration may be felt to be more suitable. Some also abstain from all parties, entertainments and music during the whole mourning period but it is important not to withdraw from social contacts altogether.
A year after a person has died, Jewish tradition helps us to remember their significance in our lives by the Yarzheit ritual. Their mourners light a 24 hour candle in their memory and their name is read out at Synagogue on the Shabbat after their Yarzheit, both on Shabbat Evening and Shabbat Morning.