Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning, will be Sunday, July 22, this year.
I have written about Tisha B’Av in this column multiple times, describing how it commemorates multiple historical disasters that befell the Jewish people on this specific date. These include the destruction of the first and second Temples, the razing of Jerusalem by the Romans in 132 CE, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and then the deportation of residents of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942.
It is a day of mourning for large scale disasters that affected the Jewish people. So many Jews fast and say special prayers to commemorate these losses.
I have been thinking much lately about the more immediate losses that affect us all, the loss of individuals whom we love and care about. Perhaps this seems a bit morbid, but I have been thinking a lot about death and how Jews deal with death of a family member. This was prompted, in part, by going to funerals, in the last few months, of friends who died of cancer. So I thought perhaps I would write an article about Jewish customs for death.
When a Jew dies, the custom is that he/she is to be buried within 24 hours whenever possible. However, burials will not be held on Shabbat (Saturday); instead the burial will occur before Shabbat starts on Friday evening or else on Sunday.
Jews do not traditionally use cremation (prohibited by Jewish law), but instead bury the body to return it to the earth. Also, Jewish law specifically prohibits that body be preserved through embalming, because such a practice is seen as violating the dignity of the deceased. After death, the body will be washed and dressed in a plain, white shroud. This sometimes is done by a Hevra Kadisha, which is a group of Jewish laypeople who have learned how to prepare a body for burial.
The Jewish customs of burial require that each person be treated equal to all others in death, regardless of social and economic status. Both the rich and the poor are to be buried in a simple shroud and a simple wooden coffin. By using a shroud for everyone, the poor do not have to worry about the expense of funeral clothing and fancy caskets. The casket is closed during the funeral service.
Just prior to the funeral service, the family members perform a ritual ripping of their garments, called “k’riah.” This is today done by ripping a black ribbon. You may read stories in the Bible about people, such as Jacob, who ripped their garments when learning of the death of a loved one. The K’riah ritual comes from this. Some Jews will wear this ripped ribbon for the seven days of Shiva, some for a full 30 days, as a symbol of mourning.
The funeral is intended to focus on the life of the deceased. It is usually very simple, with a few traditional prayers, followed by eulogies. Flowers are not traditional, and the coffin is to be covered with a simple cloth. There is no music played at traditional Jewish funerals. Sometimes families just hold a graveside service.
The burial involves the family and other mourners standing at the grave, watching as the coffin is lowered into the grave. After that, the family and other mourners each throw dirt onto the coffin. The Kaddish prayer is read at graveside.
After the funeral and interment, begins the period known as “Shiva.” Shiva is from the Hebrew word for the number seven. It refers to the first seven days of mourning after the death.
Traditionally the family observes Shiva in the house, sitting low to the ground on cushions or low benches. Visitors come to see the family to offer condolences and to sit with them for a while. Often the community will hold a daily prayer service there in the home, so that the mourners can have the opportunity to say Kaddish, which requires 10 people, a minyan.
Shiva is the end of the immediate mourning period. Many Jews continue in “semi-mourning” for up to 30 days after the death. Some mourning continues for up to 11 months, when the mourners say Kaddish. Jews are expected to say Kaddish for 11 months after the death of a parent or child (but not a spouse or sibling). That requires attending daily services where there is a minyan, 10 people, in attendance. After the initial 11 months, it is traditional to say Kaddish each year on the “yartzeit” or anniversary of the death.
In this country, gravestones for Jewish graves are usually erected about a year after the death. At this time, there is a simple “unveiling” ceremony held at the graveyard. Usually the family gathers and says a few prayers at the graveside, including the Kaddish.
I think of the funerals I recently attended. These funerals were very religious, led by priests and attended by many mourners. And I think of Jewish funerals I have attended. I realize that no matter what the liturgy and practice, no matter how we pray to God or what we call God, all of these customs do the same thing. They honor the dignity of the deceased loved ones, celebrate their lives, and they offer comfort to those who are in mourning the loss.
If you are interested in an in-depth description of Jewish burial customs, you may wish to read the book, “Saying Kaddish,” by Anita Diamant.
May God comfort all who mourn.