Death & Mourning
The traditional Israelite process of mourning and dealing with death is very beautiful, very healing, and very supporting and comforting. Everything is arranged so that no unnecessary stress is placed upon those who mourn, and the community plays an important part in supporting the mourners as comforters in their process of grief and coming to terms with their loss.
As part of one’s regular 10% tithe to the religious community, some of the money goes towards a ‘Burial Society’. Jewish communities have these to ensure the speedy and efficient burial of the dead. The dead are buried within 24 hours of death; without these societies, the grieving relatives would have the trouble of worrying about burial expenses and funerary arrangements on top of their grief. Those without relatives also have the assurance that they will be taken care of when they die, without the worry of who will bury them. In the Orthodox community, those involved in running a burial society will drop whatever they are doing upon hearing of someone’s death and hurry to attend to the necessary arrangements.
Burial is within 24 hours of death. It is thought that this was because in a hot climate, decomposition ensues very quickly. It is considered a duty to bury the dead; hence even criminals and enemies are accorded a burial, because to leave them unburied would defile the holiness of the Land.
Advance Personal Preparations for Death
It was not uncommon for someone, while still alive, to make preparations for their burial – if they want any personal items buried with them, if they wanted to be buried in something other than a burial shroud, where they want to be buried, what they want their service to be like, and so one.
The Preparation of the body
In ancient times, the body was washed in water containing essence of balsam and aloes, and then the whole body was anointed with olive oil mixed with frankincense and myrrh, or other aromatic oils. Great care and reverential respect is taken with the body. After preparation, the body is wrapped in a simple white, linen burial shroud, nothing more.
It is considered a desecration of the body for it to be cut open to be examined like the corpse of an animal. Traditionally Jews have raised objections to routine autopsies of our dead, unless the deceased was a murder victim and an autopsy would help to catch the killer – and then only the minimum necessary.
The body is placed in the coffin face upward, the hands folded across the chest, and the feet stretched out. The coffin itself is plain and simple, neither more ornate for the rich, nor less for the poor. This is to reflect the fact that both rich and poor are brought to the same status upon death.
For reference, in ancient times there was no coffin; the body was wrapped in a shroud and carried on a sturdy board or bier to the place of burial.
Funeral & Burial
It seems perhaps unnecessary to say, but it is nevertheless important to point out that a funeral is for the benefit of the living, not the dead.
It is not customary to burn the dead, as this was seen as a pagan ritual. To maintain the holiness and distinctiveness of the people of Israel, bodies were buried in the earth or laid in tombs or in caves. In the late Second Temple Period, it was customary after a year to gather the remains of the deceased from the place of burial and reinter them by placing them in a small ossuary (bone casket made of stone). The bones were wrapped in linen cloths, tied closely together like mummies, and then solemnly reinterred. This had the practical effect of saving on space, which is what many people who vociferously support cremation complain about. Perhaps the custom of reinterrment in an ossuary could be revived, if space is an issue.
It is not customary to have flowers at Jewish funerals; it is considered a pagan custom. During the service, the deceased’s prayer shawl is spread out over the coffin. The coffin is not normally brought into the synagogue, the service being held instead at the place of burial.
The procession at the cemetery to the graveside is accompanied by a funeral dirge (Amos 8:10, Jer 9:16-17). The dirge singer walks in front of the procession, followed by the pallbearers carrying the coffin, then the close relatives, followed at the back by friends and any respectful strangers.
The pallbearers carried the bier on their shoulders (hence their name, “kattafim” or ‘shoulderers’). It was also the custom that, if a stranger was nearby and wished to honour the dead, they could follow at the back.
At the graveside, a short prayer and the mourners’ prayer is recited, a short address or eulogy for the dead is delivered, and then the coffin is lowered into the grave.
After the coffin has been lowered into the grave, the mourners throw a handful of soil mixed with red ochre, as a symbol of the earth from which we have come (Gen 2:7). This is a reflection of an extremely ancient custom; it was thought that man was called ‘adam’ because of the red (adom) soil from which he was made. Once the grave is closed, the dirge singer sings Ps 91.
Before leaving the cemetery, it is customary for all those present to wash their hands. In Jewish cemeteries, facilities are made available for this purpose.
In ancient times, the burial-place was held in high regard due to the fact that it was the resting-place of the members of the family. To the ancient Hebrew, to die was “to be gathered unto one’s people” and “to lie with one’s ancestors” (Gen. 49:29; Num. 27:13; Judges 2:10); to be buried in the grave of one’s father and mother was their fondest wish (2Sam. 19:38, 21:14).
The official mourning period (`eit eivel) is seven days (cf Sirach 22:12), the same as for the main festivals. Amos 8:10 says, “I will turn your appointed festivals into periods ofmourning“; this has greater meaning when you understand this reference to the principal feasts like Unleavened Bread and Sukkot, which continue seven days.
This was how it was amongst the ancient Hebrews; it was often noted that the mourning periods of other nations were longer. For example, Joseph mourned seven days for his father Jacob (Gen 50:10), while the mourning of a captive Gentile woman was permitted to last thirty days out of consideration for her custom (Deut. 21:13), showing that the Gentile period of mourning for a parent exceeded that of the Hebrews.
However, in the case of a nationally respected figure, public mourning may last for no more than 30 days; this was the period of time, for example, that the Israelites mourned after the death of Moses on the plains of Moab (Deut 34:8).
It is customary to make a rend in one’s garments upon hearing of the death of a close relative or friend. This is called a keri’ah, usually in the neck or lapel of a garment. One then dresses in black (the colour of sackcloth) for seven days. Sackcloth was made of black goats’ hair; hence the colour of mourning clothes is black.
During this time, those close to the dead do not wear any cosmetics, scents or adornments (2Sam 14:2), they have their heads uncovered, they do not wear any shoes or sandals (Ezek 24:17), and they eat simple food which is prepared for them (‘the food of mourners’ – Hos 9:4). Mourner’s food is very basic and excludes meat and wine. Women tie back their hair and cut their nails, while men don’t shave, and allow their nails to grow.
During the seven days, mourners are never left alone; there is always someone present to act as a consoler or comforter (m’nacheim). The bereaved do not leave the house, and if anything is needed, the m’nacheim will go out and get it for them. Having consolers or comforters is an important part of Israelite custom, stretching back into earliest antiquity. Consolers do all the housework and prepare food for the bereaved during the seven days. During that time the bereaved do not engage in frivolous entertainment.
When receiving visitors, the mourners sit on low chairs. This reflects the ancient custom of mourners sitting on the ground. They are not expected to rise even for important visitors, and take the main seat of honour in the house (Job 29:25). By custom, all the mirrors in the house are covered, so that the mourners do not have to look on themselves in their grief.
Consolers who accompany those in mourning should not restrain them if they weep; such an act is a natural part of grief, and is nothing to be ashamed of; in fact it is often said that it is strong to cry. Often it is a great comfort to be able to sit in silence with someone; the mourners should be allowed to speak when they feel like it, and to be silent and dwell in their thoughts when they are drawn to silence. It is not the place of consolers to dwell on reasons why someone has died.
On the Anniversary of Death (Yom ha-Zikkaron)
After a year, one lights a candle and says prayers for the memory of the dead. After a year is up, the cover stone is laid on the grave. This is a good opportunity for those who were unable to attend the funeral to be present at the graveside for the stone laying service. Before the end of twelve months, the mourners’ prayer is said, but now the memorial prayer for the dead is recited at the graveside by those closest to the deceased.
If you have ever seen ancient Jewish ossuaries (bone caskets), they had some very beautiful concentric designs on them; rather than copying modern Jewish graves, I think it would be an excellent idea for us to revive these ancient symbols to put on our gravestones, to show our link with our ancient past.
Thereafter, whenever one visits a grave, it is customary to pick up a small stone from elsewhere in the cemetery and place it on the grave when one leaves.