Traditional mourning, burial rites focus on dignity

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Just as there is a way to live as a Jew, there is also "a way to die and be buried as a Jew," writes Blu Greenberg in her classic 1983 book, "How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household."

The book outlines the death rituals observed by traditional Jews.

Usually the synagogue will take over many of the arrangements after a death in the family. Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible, following the principle of honoring the dead, k'vod hamet. Only if immediate relatives cannot arrive in time from abroad, or there is not enough time for burial before Shabbat or a holiday, are burials postponed for a day.

Anything less is considered a "humiliation of the dead," Greenberg explains.

If you don't already have funeral plots purchased, you or a representative will need to contact the cemetery to do so. You also will need to contact the funeral parlor to transfer the body and schedule the time of the funeral. Jewish law mandates a simple pine box. Cremation and embalming are forbidden.

Most well-organized communities offer the services of a chevrah kadishah, or sacred burial society, which will prepare the body for burial. Members wash the body with warm water from head to foot.

The body is dressed in tachrichim, or white burial shrouds, which are purposely kept simple to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Men are buried with their tallit, which are rendered ineffective by cutting off one of the fringes.

If, however, a person suffered an injury and blood soaked into his or her clothing, a tahara, or ritual washing, is not completed, because "the blood of a person is considered as holy as his life and deserves proper burial," Greenberg writes.

From the moment of death, the body is not left alone until after burial. This practice is called shemira or guarding. A family member, chevra kadishah member or someone hired by the funeral parlor passes the time by reciting tehillim or psalms.

Jewish funerals are very simple. Before they begin, the immediate relatives of the deceased — siblings, parents, children, spouse — tear their garments to symbolize their loss. Sometimes the rabbi will tear their garments and recite a blessing.

During the ceremony that follows, Psalms are recited, then a eulogy and El Maleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer. The casket is carried or wheeled out of the room by the male members of a chevra kadishah and the mourners follow behind the casket.

Those attending the funeral remain standing until the family mourners have left the room. Another custom is for people attending the funeral but not the burial to escort the dead, leveyat hamet, by walking behind the hearse for a short distance.

A Jew who is a Kohen, a descendant of the priestly class, will only attend the funeral and burial of his immediate family as he is otherwise forbidden to come near a corpse. For that reason, you may see a friend or relative who is a Kohen remain outside the funeral parlor or cemetery to pay his respects.

At the cemetery, another custom is to stop seven times as the coffin is carried to the grave, reciting Psalm 91. Once the coffin is lowered into the grave, family and close friends cover the coffin with a few handfuls of dirt. The rabbi repeats Psalm 91 and El Maleh Rachamim.

Following the burial, non-family members form two lines and, as the mourners pass by them, they recite the traditional condolence: HaMakom y'nachem etchem b'toch sh'ar availai Tziyon vee'Yerushalayim ( May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem). Before leaving the cemetery, everyone washes his or her hands as a symbolic cleansing.

There are several stages to Jewish mourning for the immediate family. The first is shivah, which marks the first seven days after burial. During this time, mourners do not leave their homes and sit on low stools as a sign of their loss. They traditionally wear their torn garments during shivah period but are permitted to wash them and take a daily shower for hygiene. Luxurious baths, haircuts, wearing leather shoes and sexual intercourse are avoided. Men do not shave and women do not wear cosmetics. During shivah, mirrors are covered with white sheets or a soapy film. A memorial candle is burned

Traditionally, Jews do not send flowers or bring candy to mourners. Instead, they make a donation to charity in memory of the deceased.

Another custom is to visit mourners during shivah and bring or help prepare their meals, which should include round foods, such as eggs or lentils, which symbolize life and hope. This tradition begins with the seudat havra'ah, the meal immediately following the burial, which is prepared by friends or neighbors. During Shabbat, mourners may have guests, but this is not usually a time for shivah calls.

During shivah, mourners recite Kaddish three times a day in the presence of a minyan, which is held in the home. If a holiday intervenes, shivah is terminated even if the full seven days have not run their course. If, however, the burial is held during the intermediary days of Sukkot or Passover, shivah is postponed until after the holiday ends. Mourners are permitted to attend synagogue on Shabbat.

The next stage of mourning begins at shloshim, the 30-day period after the burial. During this time, mourners do not hold or attend parties, weddings, musical events or dances, although the mourner may resume his or her regular routine.

If a parent dies, this period of mourning continues 11 months. During this time, the mourner recites Kaddish, the memorial prayer three times daily as part of a minyan. After one year, and for each year thereafter, a yahrzeit candle is lit for a full 24 hours. Men help lead synagogue services and a woman may sponsor the kiddush, or a small reception, after the services.