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Jewish Burial and Mourning Customs
There are times when rules and regulations can feel overwhelming – even burdensome. However, when embraced – the very ideas we felt were binding turn out to liberate us.
The Jewish laws of mourning may be one of the best examples where our faith’s rigid guidelines provide direction and comfort in a moment when we feel lost, devastated, and uncertain. It is astounding how ancient traditions of mourning continue to embrace and cradle us, to nurture and support us, and to lead and guide us.
Grief is – at once – absorbed into the planning of the funeral, ensuring the obligation of K’vod Hamet (Honoring the Dead), and reaching out to friends and family. It is in a numbed state of purpose that we are able to care for our loved one in this final moment.
K’vod Hamet further involves caring for the deceased by arranging a burial as soon as possible, allowing the deceased to depart in dignity. A Shomer (“watchman”) stays with the deceased from the time of death until the burial.
Symbols and traditions run throughout the entire mourning process. Mourners tear a black ribbon or part of the garment they are wearing as a physical sign of their grief.
Pallbearers carry the casket to its burial place – a tradition dating back to when Jacob was carried by his children at his death. It is our final opportunity to “carry” and care for our loved one.
After the casket is lowered into the ground, mourners and friends participate in Kevurah, shoveling the earth into the grave. While it can be a difficult and emotional task, this last act of caring for the deceased can assist mourners in acceptance of the death. The back of the shovel is used to put the dirt into the grave. This signifies our reluctance in contributing to this occurrence.
Back at the house where Shiva will be observed, there is a pitcher of water outside the home. The ritual of washing hands after the cemetery and before entering the home is an act of spiritual cleansing. Inside, a Shiva candle is lit and remains lit for the seven days of mourning.
The mourners are served a meal made by extended family and friends. The meal is called Seudat Havra’ah, a meal of condolence. This meal is not intended for everyone but only for the immediate family. It is an opportunity for the community to show support and take care of the mourning family.
Kaddish is first recited at the cemetery and is recited daily for just short of eleven months. Kaddish is a memorial prayer that is not a declaration of our sorrow, but an assertion of life and our faith in G-d.
For seven days, the mourners sit Shiva (which means seven) and are visited by friends and family who offer comfort, bring food and share loving memories of the deceased. This is a period of contained grief. Mourners sit low to the ground, refrain from wearing leather shoes, set aside business transactions, abstain from sexual relations, and cover their mirrors.
Shloshim (which means thirty) continues for twenty-three days after Shiva is sat. Mourners ease back into their “normal” routines but continue to avoid celebrations with music and dancing.
When we experience the death of a loved one, our lives are impacted in ways we cannot imagine. The greatest gift of healing we can give ourselves is to transform our grief into something that will honor our loved one – who they were, what they valued, and what they wished for – and turn their memory into a blessing that will continue to touch others for years to come.
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