The Jewish way of mourning | Worship

By Glen Pickus, Temple Beth Or | Feb 19, 2014

Jewish mourning rituals are thousands of years old, yet mirror what modern psychologists would recommend to anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one.

The rituals are designed to treat us all equally in death, to show respect for the dead and to comfort the living.

Traditionally, after a Jew dies, the body is never left alone. Those who stay with the body are considered meritorious because the service performed can never be repaid by the deceased.

They do not eat or drink because to do so would be considered mocking the dead, who can no longer do those things. Before burial, the body is ritually washed and wrapped in a plain linen shroud.

Coffins are simple and made only of wood without nails. All of this ensures an equal level of honor for the deceased, be they poor or rich, famous or unknown.

Open casket ceremonies are not allowed, because exposing a body is seen as mocking their helpless state.

Jewish burials take place as soon as possible after death, typically within 24 hours.

In part, this is because it would be disrespectful to allow the body to decompose. In practice, it helps mourners to not be caught in a long waiting period between the time of death and the funeral.

Mourners at a Jewish funeral are invited to help fill the grave with earth after the casket is lowered into the ground. It is an act of righteousness because the gesture is done for someone who can offer no repayment or gratitude.

Personally, I do it because the closure it provides is pure and overwhelming.

Jewish tradition sets boundaries to mourning, dividing the process into periods in which the intensity of mourning progressively decreases. We are given space to grieve, but also gently encouraged to re-enter the world.

The first period of mourning, shiva, starts after burial and lasts seven days. During shiva, mourners traditionally refrain from work and occasions of frivolity.

Family and friends visit and provide meals and comfort. Mourners are not expected to entertain guests.

Shloshim, the next, less intense, period of mourning, lasts until the 30th day after burial. During this time, mourners return to work but continue to refrain from exuberant celebrations. Many recite Kaddish, a prayer honoring the deceased, each day.

The final period of formal mourning lasts for 12 months after the burial. During that time, mourners continue to recite Kaddish, the prayer honoring the deceased.

Tombstones are erected only after formal mourning ends. They are all the same size with simple engravings and no honorifics or titles. This way, everybody is treated equally after death.

Temple Beth Or has purchased a section of the GAR Cemetery in Snohomish and created a holy space there for Jewish burials. The synagogue’s Bereavement Committee and Rabbi are available to help mourning Jews in the area honor those who have passed away and grieve within the comfort of Jewish tradition.

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