Waiting until a death to consider and plan some of the preparations for the funeral adds stress, pressure and activity on the shoulders of the immediate family. Several items can be considered and decided ahead of time, easing the burden upon those who are grieving. Thought first be given to the choice of a cemetery. Individuals of the Jewish faith are usually buried either in a specifically Jewish cemetery or in a designated portion of a general cemetery. Consideration should be given to a cemetery where other family members have been buried.
Another item that can be pre-planned is the choice of a casket. Most funeral homes and services provide several choices that take into account preferences and price. Planning these financial decisions ahead of time can make the loved ones’ time of mourning less stressful.
Choices can also be made about those who will be dealing with the preparations of the body. Families usually consult with the Hevra Kadisha, a holy committee to take care of arrangements, a rabbi and the funeral home or cemetery. In some places these groups may be integrated. If not, the organizations usually communicate well to achieve the wishes of the family. Speaking to them ahead of time will not only answer questions pertaining to procedures, but will give peace of mind that all of the important details regarding the death and burial are in the hands of professionals who are there to help you.
Another decision that can be made ahead of time involves people who wish to bring a gift or support the family, whether to the service or home of the family. Although flowers offer an attractive, meaningful expression of sorrow in many faiths, Judaism has specific traditions and customs that one should be aware of when deciding What to Bring or Send. The family should come to a consensus regarding this important component of the funeral.
Finally some particulars about the funeral and burial can be determined ahead of time. Decisions can be made about who should officiate, whether family members and friends should be allowed to offer eulogies, and if there are preferences for Scripture readings and songs.
If these arrangements are made ahead of time, the survivors do not have to make these critical, yet painful, decisions during their time of shock and grief.
Before & Immediately Following the Death
If you are present when a friend or loved one dies, several vital steps must be handled in a timely fashion. If you are at the workplace when a death occurs, there may be people appointed to handle the details of the death. If someone passes away at work, call 911 immediately. Any death that occurs without medical personnel present must be reported to the police. It is probable that an investigation will be held by the coroner’s office. An autopsy upon the body may be required. The same would be true if the death occurs at home.
If the loved one passes away while under the care of a medical team, the primary care physician should be notified as soon as possible. The physician’s name can often be found on prescription bottles or medical statements. If their needs have required care in a hospital or other care facility, the staff of the facility will usually take care of contacting the mortuary. Often the mortuary has been designated upon admission.
If the loved one was an organ donor, instructions are often found on the driver’s license in the purse or wallet. If no instructions can be found, call the primary care physician or a local hospital for proper procedures.
Also among the first calls to be made, the Hevra Kadisha should be contacted. This society helps take care of the details of preparing the body for burial. If you are unsure of how to contact this organization, a local rabbi should have the information available.
Jewish tradition requires that a dead body be watched or guarded until the burial. The shomer (or shomeret, if a female) remains with the body at all times and often reads Scripture and offers prayers. A family member may be willing to serve in this capacity, but it is not necessary for the shomer to know the deceased. Sometimes the Hevra Kadisha can provide the shomer.
The Hevra Kadisha will arrange for the transportation of the body. Depending upon the size of the Jewish community, they may have their own facility to conduct the necessary preparations. If not, they work closely with local funeral homes. Trained individuals will bathe and dress the body with the utmost respect. Depending upon their connection to the Jewish denomination, the dressing of the body will either be in a plain white shroud or in favorite clothing of the deceased. The only item that made by buried along with the body is a tallit or prayer shawl.
If the deceased had made arrangements ahead of time for the burial and for a funeral plan, find the necessary information. Do your best to see that the wishes are carried out exactly as planned.
Telling the Sad News to Others
Sharing information about the death of someone is never an easy task. There are a few guidelines that can assure that sensitivity and respect prevail. Inform the closest family members in person if at all possible. When breaking the news to out-of-town immediate family members, make sure that the person being called is not alone when you speak.
Put together a list of people and organizations that need to be contacted. People to include on the list are distant family members, friends, employers (of both the deceased and immediate family members), peers, organization members and neighbors. The synagogue, former employers, organizations that the deceased actively supported, and educational facilities such as the alma mater would be among the businesses to be contacted.
Delegate family members to make the phone calls. From a traditional stand point, be sensitive and understand your audience if considering to send texts and emails.
Planning the Funeral
In planning the funeral service, the first decision that must be made is who will conduct the proceedings. The one who officiates at the funeral is usually a rabbi or cantor. While this individual does not have to have known the deceased, most families prefer someone who has a strong connection with the family. For those who do not have a home synagogue, the funeral home or Hevra Kadisha will have a list of people who can serve in the capacity of the officiate.
Usually the rabbi will lead the prayers and songs and deliver the eulogy. The rabbi will often meet with the family to collect stories about the deceased, in order to present a meaningful and accurate eulogy. Many times the rabbi will want to point out lessons to be learned from the life of the deceased. Family members will often make suggestions about the selection of Scripture readings.
Jewish tradition highly recommends that the funeral and burial take place within twenty-four hours of the death. This is because the body begins to decompose immediately after death. Because of individual circumstances – close family members living far away, time to obtain burial permits, or government investigations – the burial is often delayed. Patience and sensitivity is required during this difficult time.
Historically, flowers and spices were used by non-Jews to offset any odor at the funeral home. Due to the immediate burial in Jewish tradition, flowers were not an important component of the service. The absence of flowers became a way to distinguish a Jewish ceremony. Even though tradition leans toward flowerless Jewish funerals, the Law certainly does not prohibit flowers at a funeral. Instead of sending flowers, it is more consistent with Jewish tradition and practice to send food, plant trees in Israel and make donations to a charity or educational facility that was special to the deceased.
A traditional ceremony of burial who include dressing the body in a plain white shroud. The casket would be made of untreated wood with no metal parts. In addition to the shroud, the person may be buried with a tallit (prayer shawl) with one of its corner fringes cut. It is also a tradition to include a bag of soil from Israel in the casket. The local rabbi can help assist in this matter.
Many Jewish communities allow for more flexibility in these choices. Some families prefer to dress the loved one in favorite clothing. Photographs or personal items may be included in the casket for sentimental reasons. A rabbi should be consulted for guidance toward acceptable practices during this difficult time of grief.
Most families, including those who will not be sitting shiva, welcome visitors to the family home after the funeral service for a traditional meal. This meal of consolation, or sudat hav’ra’ah is mostly intended for the grieving or mourning.
While a caterer may be secured for the meal, it is best for the extended family or synagogue members and friends to plan the meal. The immediate family should not carry this responsibility. They should also refrain from greeting or entertaining guests.
Families often place a guest book at the entrance to the home, along with a pitcher of water, basin and a towel for ceremonial cleansing.
Preparing for Shiva
If a family chooses to sit shiva, preparations must be made. Often friends and the rabbi will assist in coordinating meals and times for visitation. Shiva.com is a comprehensive resource offering information, guidance and assistance when planning a shiva.
No checklist can be complete for every circumstance. A few other issues that often surface should be considered prior to the funeral. If the deceased was a veteran, the local VFW post should be contacted. A flag or military services may be a part of the funeral. Have the individual’s discharge papers available.
Place an obituary in the local newspapers, particularly if a Jewish edition is available. The funeral home usually takes care of placing this information in the local paper. If other papers are desired, the family often puts the information available.
Arrange for transportation and housing for family members who come from far away for the services.
Designate a charitable organization(s) for donations in honor of the loved one. This is a very delicate decision and should be made with the consensus of the immediate family.