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Death to Burial in Judaism
by Caryn Meltz

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Death to Burial
• Part 2: Mourning

Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust and to dust shall you return.” Death is not a curse but a natural component of human nature. Since man came from the earth, it is only natural that he return to earth. In essence, death is a part of the life cycle.

The Jewish laws exist to console and comfort the mourner.

Moment of Death

Whoever is with the person at the time of his death may not leave the room (unless that person’s emotions are uncontrollable or he is physically ill). It’s the greatest respect to watch over the deceased when he goes from this world to the next.

The eyes and mouth of the deceased should be shut and a sheet should be drawn over his face. His feet should be positioned facing the doorway. The deceased should never be left alone until the time of burial. The Burial Society is called at this time.

Care of the Deceased

The body is immediately tended to in order to preserve the sanctity of man. Although the body is no longer used, the form must be respected for having once housed the spirit of G-d. Immediate members of the family should not be present while preparing the body for the burial.

The deceased is dressed in a shroud. All human beings are considered equal, and therefore, are all dressed in the same manner. Poor and rich alike are dressed in a simple and white garment without pockets. He is then wrapped in a prayer shawl with one of the fringes cut to symbolize the mourning period and loss. The casket, too, is simple and made completely of wood (in Israel no caskets are used at all; the body is put into the ground in the prayer shawl). The concept is that wood decomposes at the same rate as the body.

The burial should be made as soon as possible. Deuteronomy 21:23: “His body shall not remain all night … you shall bury him on that day.” The soul has already returned to G-d, so it is only proper to “return” the body as well.

The Funeral

The service is directed toward honoring the departed.

Rending the Garment

Genesis 37:34: “Then Jacob rent his garments and placed sackcloth on his loins.” Jacob rent his clothes upon seeing Joseph’s torn up coat with blood stains and assumed that he was dead.

The mourner’s act of rending his garment is a mark of separation. It emits a psychological relief -- a need to let out his feelings. The tear is made over the heart region to symbolize a broken heart. The garment is torn for a mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister or spouse. There are three opportunities upon which to rend the garment: upon hearing of the death, the funeral chapel, or the cemetery.

Funeral Service

In addition to Psalm 23, chapters from the book of Psalms are recited pertaining to the person’s life. Chapter 23 discusses the most intimate relationship between man and G-d. A Memorial Prayer is also said as well as a eulogy. The eulogy serves two purposes: 1) praises the deceased for his qualities 2) expresses grief on behalf of the mourners and the rest of the community. Abraham eulogized his wife Sarah upon her death (Genesis 23:2).

Burial

The deceased must be buried in the earth, therefore, cremation and embalming are forbidden. There should be a natural decomposition of the body.

There are several customs as to who the pallbearers should be. Usually family and close friends fill this role and they are the ones to start shoveling dirt into the grave.

Kaddish, the prayer recited for the deceased is recited at this time.

All those present at the funeral must wash their hands afterward. There is an emphasis on life since one has just come in contact with the dead. This is like a purification process.

* This article was written by Caryn Meltz, a freelance writer and editor.

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