Loss & Mourning: Part III
This multi-chapter guide on loss is for anyone: mourners, supporters, people grappling with their own mortality.
While this guide focuses mainly on Jewish rituals and traditions for confronting and mourning a person’s death, the wisdom offered here is accessible to anyone and can be applied to grieving other types of losses, as well.
The third and final chapter of this guide details the structured and time bound Jewish rituals that accompany a funeral, burial, and ongoing mourning. These rituals balance the inevitability of death with our often visceral, resistant response to loss and offer opportunities for tangible and spiritual catharsis.
“i am trying to remember you and let you go at the same time. – the mourn” – Nayyirah Waheed
The time surrounding a Jewish death is sacred, balancing ritual and mourning with an acceptance of the inevitability of loss. The days, weeks, and months following a death layer a nested set of rituals, each with its own purpose and observed by certain people for a specific length of time.
First comes aninut, the dazed limbo between death and burial when the people closest to the deceased are not yet officially mourners. The funeral and burial, which take place as close to one day after death as possible, mark the next phase and official start of mourning.
Family, friends, and the community may all feel the impact of a loss, but, in Jewish tradition, the immediate family – parents, siblings, spouses, and children – are the ones who observe the rituals of mourning.
One of the very first traditions observed by the immediate family of the deceased is that of keriah – tearing an article of clothing or making a cut in a symbolic piece of ribbon pinned to the mourners’ clothing – which typically takes place upon hearing of a death or at the start of the funeral. This can be traced to the time when when Jacob tore his own cloak upon seeing the bloody coat of his son Joseph.
Today, just as in ancient times, the act of tearing allows for a release of emotion and is a vehicle for a natural physical reaction that may arise. As it says in Mourning & Mitzvah, keriah allows mourners to “symbolically rip ourselves open to expose our deepest feelings (that’s an act of prayer!).” The torn cloth is worn throughout shiva, the initial seven days of mourning when the most prescribed rituals are observed. For an alternative take on this tradition, read Anne Brener’s essay on embracing this ribbon and reclaiming the visibility of mourning.
I have found burial to be the emotional tipping point. It is then that the finality of death is felt most powerfully. At that moment we are forced to accept the impermanence of our physical selves. Yet in the cemetery, we may perceive a greater place, an eternal presence that is not within the world, but which contains all that was, is, and will ever be. Lifting our gaze from the grave, walking between our friends, we are invited to join the company of all mourners in Zion, seeking solace in the infinite mystery of God. – Rabbi Danny Nevins
The Jewish funeral is known as levaya, which means to escort, join, or bond the connection of souls between the living and the dead.
A Jewish funeral can be held anywhere that is comfortable or meaningful to the mourners, whether a house, synagogue, funeral home, cemetery, or graveside. The funeral includes the procession to the burial place and concludes at the graveside with the burial.
There is no standard format for a Jewish funeral service, although it typically includes a combination of readings, a hesped (often translated as “eulogy”), and the prayer for the soul of the departed.
The Biblical word for mourning is sapad, meaning “to lament or wail,” while eulogy is Greek for “good words or praise.” As it says in Mourning & Mitzvah, “Hesped impels us to tell the truth about the person who has died and about the loss and its emotional consequences. It calls for the expression of the full range of feelings and enables us to use our lives as teachers.” The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deeah 344, 1) states, “It is a great mitzvah to eulogize the dead person appropriately. The mitzvah is to raise one’s voice to say over [the departed] things that break the heart, so that there will be much crying.”
The memorial prayer is traditionally sung in a haunting tune and begins with the words El malei rachamim, “God filled with compassion,” directed at Shekhinah, the comforting divine presence. The prayer ends with, “May this soul be bound up in the bond of life and may they rest in peace.” El Malei Rachamim is usually recited after the body is lowered into the ground, when the mourners’ sense of loss and separation is most intense.
The burial is considered the moment when the body returns to dust and the soul rises to meet other souls. It is the point at which the focus shifts from kavod hamet, “honoring the dead,” to yekare de’hayye, “the needs of the survivors.”
Jews take the preparation of the body for burial – or kevurah – very seriously. In Jewish tradition, a dead body is to be shown deep respect and decay of the body should occur naturally, so it is not cremated, embalmed, or autopsied. Many rabbis may not participate in a ceremony for a body that has been cremated, but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate Jewish elements into a ceremony for a body that has been cremated.
Halakha, Jewish law, forbids tattoos, and there is a persistent myth that a tattoo on a dead body prevents its burial in a Jewish cemetery, but this is not true. Jewish law does not mention burial of tattooed Jews, and nearly all burial societies have no such restriction.
At the point of burial, the casket is carried by pallbearers – usually extended family or friends – and the community follows the procession for at least a few steps. The casket is brought from the hearse to the grave in three or seven stages, showing our unwillingness to take leave of our loved one. This is traditionally accompanied by recitations of Psalm 91 in which we ask God to watch over us.
After the leader of the burial ceremony says a few words at the gravesite, the casket is lowered into the ground and the immediate family says the Mourner’s Kaddish. The Mourner’s Kaddish is recited at various time throughout the year, and this is because it is not actually a prayer for the dead. Rather, it gives praise for the Divine. All kaddishes are about marking transitions, and the Mourner’s Kaddish recited at a burial is no different.
The Jewish mystics say that the living play a part in the redemption, the cleaning of the slate, of the dead. A person’s life can be enhanced even after death by the actions of those who remember that person. One way that redemption occurs is by recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. On a spiritual level, this allows the dialogue to continue between living and dead. In this way, Kaddish can be a vehicle for saying things left unsaid, for working through remaining issues, and for redeeming the relationship and freeing the souls of the dead and the living so the living can focus on their concerns (Mourning & Mitzvah). Further, a minyan is required so that the mourner can move into a communal mindset and behavior throughout the periods of mourning. It also provides routine when everything else has been upended.
The final act of closure at the burial is for those present to fill the grave with dirt, starting with the immediate family. When tossing the first shovelful of earth, it is Jewish custom to hold the shovel upside down to signify that this use of the shovel is different than all others. When each person is finished, they lodge the shovel back in the unused mound of dirt, rather than handing it to the next person. This avoids passing along grief to other mourners. The shoveling is considered a mitzvah, or a pure gesture, because the deceased cannot return the act. As those who have heard this sound before know, hearing the soil hit the coffin isn’t easy. It is meant to be difficult, just as the pain of loss is.
After the burial, guests stand in two parallel lines as the mourners walk down the aisle that has been created to exit the cemetery while receiving words of comfort, commonly “HaMakom y’nachem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yrushalayim,” “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The moment the guests and mourners reach the end of the lines, as if passing through a womb, they are no longer onenim; they are reborn as avelim, as mourners in full (My Jewish Learning).
There is an ancient custom of plucking a few blades of grass and throwing them over your shoulder when you leave the cemetery. This lets us hold onto something physical that represents the person who has just been surrendered to the ground, while helping us let go of the physicality of that relationship and open up to a more spiritual, non-physical connection. When leaving the cemetery – or entering the house of mourning for shiva – it is also customary to wash your hands so as not to bring death with you into these next stages.
The Stages of Mourning
Naaseh v’nishma (do first, understand later): You know what you’re supposed to say, and you know what it means, and you just aren’t feeling it. You keep doing it because you’re required, and hope – but really may not believe – that eventually, you’ll feel more healthy. – Esther Kustanowitz
The Jewish stages of mourning are successively less intense, starting with many restrictions and loosening up over time. This begins once the burial is over, moving from aninut, intense mourning, to avelut, mourning. To start, mourners refrain from joyous activity and, over time, enter into society, bringing them back to communal activity.
The kabbalists [Jewish mystics] spoke well when they pointed out that the only way to gather the shattered sparks of divine light – now held by the forces of chaos and despair – was to enter the sitra ahra, the side of darkness. The only place to provide healing, comfort, and an abiding sense of God’s love and communal support is in the home of the mourner. – Jack Riemer
Shiva is the weeklong period of grief and mourning that follows burial. Shiva translates to “seven” in Hebrew, and “siete” in Spanish and Ladino for Sephardic Jews. In English, we say we are “sitting shiva.” This practice of a seven-day mourning period dates back to Genesis when Joseph “makes for his father a mourning of seven days.”
Shiva is usually held in the home of the mourner(s), which may be the home of the deceased or an immediate family member. Mourners stay home and do not go outside, so friends and family come to visit them throughout the week, with the exception of Shabbat. The focus of this time is on the life of the person who died and their relationship with the mourners.
Rabban Gamliel said, “On Shabbat, it is as if a mourner is not a mourner.” This tells us that despite the intensity of the shiva period, it is not expected to be relentless. There are times when you need to take a break from mourning and bring Shabbat’s sense of renewal and restoration to your daily experience of mourning (Mourning & Mitzvah).
It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness. – Pema Chodron
Shiva can be an emotionally exhausting week. It has many traditional customs and restrictions, including:
– No bathing or shaving
– No wearing leather shoes or jewelry
– Mirrors are covered, since mourners should be concerned with matters of the soul vs. their physical appearance
– Sit on low stools or the floor (Sephardic mourners sit on floor pillows), symbolizing being “brought low” by grief
– No work
– No sex
– No studying Torah (although Sephardic Jews read the Zohar throughout the week)
The first meal that mourners eat after the funeral is the Seudat Havra’ah, or “the meal of consolation.” This is the first act of comfort and responsibility by the community, which makes the meal for mourners to nourish them at a time when self-care might not be possible. Mourners should not fix their own plate of food, but rather someone else should offer a plate to them. The meal typically includes round foods like boiled eggs, bread rolls, olives, and lentils to represent the circle of life. Comforters should take turns hosting shiva and coordinating the logistics of the nightly prayer services, food, and clean-up.
It is customary to fill the house with candles that last for seven days in memory of the person who has died. You may have seen one very tall yahrtzeit candle that is meant to last for the full week. According to the Kabbalah, five candles should be lit, representing the five levels of the soul.
It is a great mitzvah and act of compassion to visit mourners throughout shiva. While visits are customary, the mourner is not obligated to engage in conversation. No greetings are exchanged, and visitors wait for mourners to begin speaking, if they do at all. This allows the mourner to show what they are ready for by their body language, facial expression, or tears, so comforters can meet mourners where they are.
A minyan is traditionally organized each night, with the exception of Shabbat, and either the family or a rabbi leads the brief service. Since 10 Jewish adults are needed to make a minyan, these communal services are a way to bring belonging into the mourners’ lives.
“Just when God is most needed, the tragedy that produces such pressing need also renders the divine presence least accessible.” – Jack Riemer
Depending on who is visiting in the evening, a minyan during shiva can be awkward for those who are not Jewish or who don’t read Hebrew. To involve others, or as an alternative to a traditional evening service, you may want to ask people to tell short stories about the deceased. This is a nice way to remember them, honor them, and maybe even smile about funny memories.
On the seventh and last day of shiva, mourners perform certain rituals to end this first stage of mourning:
– Some take a symbolic walk to the end of the driveway or around the block to symbolize returning to society and the obligations of daily life
– Do something you couldn’t do during shiva, such as shave or look in the mirror
– In Sephardic communities, a special meal and study session are arranged, as well as another eulogy. This is called mishmara, and is also done by Sephardic Jews after shloshim (the 30-day phase described below), the first yahrtzeit (anniversary of death), and every yahrtzeit thereafter
– In some communities, shiva is ended by hammering a nail into a wooden board, as if to awaken the mourner from a daze
– Some find that going to the mikveh at this time helps in acknowledging their change of status as a mourner. Going to the mikveh at this time isn’t traditional, so there is no right or wrong thing to say while there. Here is an example of a beautiful ritual that a mourner and his rabbi co-created
Returning to daily life, which might include going back to work, can be difficult. Remember that grief does not unfold in a straight line and be kind and forgiving of yourself or of mourners in your community.
Just as the moon grows and shrinks, so our spirits and our hearts experience times of fullness and times of contraction. The end of shloshim is a time to begin looking toward fullness again. We trust that after the moon has disappeared, she will return; we trust that after our lives have been diminished by loss, light and meaning will flow into them again. – The Velveteen Rabbi
Shloshim is the thirty-day period of mourning after the burial, inclusive of the week of shiva. It is a less restrictive period than shiva, but there are still traditions to follow to help the mourner ease back into a more engaged, normal routine. During shloshim, the following actions are traditionally restricted:
– Hair cutting
– Attending social events or religious celebrations (although you can attend a religious ceremony itself)
– Buying new clothes
During this time, there are a number of acts that are encouraged:
– Praying for the soul of the person who has died (for some, this may mean reciting traditional psalms or attending daily services, but there are myriad ways to pray, from gratitude journals to abstract meditation and more)
– Giving tzedakah in the name of the person who has died
– In Hebrew, Mishnah, the Oral Torah, and neshama, “soul,” have the same letters, so it is considered a mitzvah to coordinate a group of people who will jointly study the complete Mishnah during the shloshim period. Perhaps you do this, or you pick another text that represents or was meaningful to the deceased
The Zohar says that the soul of the person who has died remains on Earth, undergoing painful cleansing, and does not ascend to Gan Eden until the end of shloshim. Only then is a person considered to be fully dead and reborn into their new spiritual state.
At the end of shloshim, you can visit the mikveh again, end with a memorial service, or perform any other creative shloshim ritual that will feel meaningful to you. Here are some unique ideas to consider. This is the end of the second stage of mourning. Unless you are mourning a parent, you can stop reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Shneim Asar Chodesh
Shneim Asar Chodesh means “twelve months” and is the final stage of mourning.
Although you might expect the obligation to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish to last for 12 months, it only lasts for 11. There is a Jewish tradition that states that the most time a person could possibly spend in the “netherworld” is 12 months. After that, even the darkest soul has atoned for its evildoings and is permitted to make its way to heaven (Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela Mintz Geffen). So, if a child says the Mourner’s Kaddish for the full 12 months, it would be as if the child is saying that the parent was extra evil and would not be leaving the netherworld by this time.
The end of Shneim Asar Chodesh is typically marked by the tombstone unveiling. It can happen any time from the end of shiva to the first yahrtzeit, especially depending on the weather, but one year is common to leave time for the mourners to begin to integrate their loss into their lives.
There is no particular halachic obligation for the unveiling. Anyone can lead the brief service, which traditionally concludes with El Maleh Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Families may choose to include some psalms and any other thoughts. Cloth covers the headstone, which is revealed at the end of the ceremony, symbolically lifting the curtain on a new beginning. On this day, and during every visit thereafter, anyone who visits the grave leaves a stone to show that family was there.
There may be a beginning to grief, but there is no definitive end. It is a lifelong task of negotiating and renegotiating your feelings and where your loss fits in your life. It is a constant ebb and flow.
Jewish tradition offers creative ways to memorialize the dead at any time:
– Perform mitzvot in their memory
– Connect their name with a project that continues their values
– Donate money or effort as a righteous act of tzedakah in their memory
– Name children after them
Yahrtzeit and Yizkor offer opportunities to focus on mourning at ongoing, seasonal times of year. Yahrtzeit literally translates to “time of year” in Yiddish, and it represents the anniversary of the day of the departed’s death on the Jewish calendar. On this day, mourners once again recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and light a yahrtzeit candle at sunset that burns for 24 hours, honoring the memory and soul of the person who died.
Yizkor is the service of “remembrance prayers.” It is recited four times each year on the holidays of Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavuot. Yizkor can be recited without a minyan. The El Malei Rachamim prayer, in which God is asked to remember and grant repose to the souls of the departed, is recited as the primary prayer of the Yizkor service.
You may see in some congregations that people who are not mourners and do not have anyone to recite Yizkor in memory of may step out of the service at this time. It can be a very sensitive and emotional moment for those who are remembering their loved ones. At the same time, it also reminds us that it’s alright to grieve within our community, year after year. This is how the legacies of the departed live on in our communities.
In Western countries with fewer mourning rituals, the bereaved report a higher level of somatic ailments in the year following a death (The New Yorker). Jewish mourning rituals can be a welcome prompt to slow down and an opportunity for self-care. Jewish tradition clearly tells us to choose life, to keep living actively and engaged in community, and that means taking care of our bodies, as much as our souls.
May this guide be a resource for mourners and those who care about them to navigate loss and the reentry into a vibrant life.
Edited by Becca Stoltz
Images, in order of appearance, by Karen Hammega, Paolo Nicolello, and Ben Duchac
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