Taking the Right Steps to Honor Jewish Tradition after the Death of a Loved One
The death of a family member or loved one is often a life-changing event, evoking powerful reminiscences. In the Jewish tradition, which places great importance on maintaining the dignity of the decedent, there are specific steps you want to take in the immediate minutes and hours after death.
When death is imminent and in the immediate moments after death, those present should not leave the room, unless there’s a serious emergency. Though your presence at the moment of death can be emotionally difficult, it’s important that a person not feel alone or abandoned on his or her death bed.
Though it’s customary to leave the body untouched for some period of time immediately after death (usually about 30 minutes), you may want to check to see if your loved one’s eyes are still open. If they are, they can be closed. This can typically be gently done with your hands. You can also close the mouth and straighten any limbs, as necessary. Jewish custom also calls for a candle to be lit and placed near the head of the deceased. It’s also tradition to open a window in the room, so that the decedent’s soul can depart. In some traditions, the family may ask that the body be placed on the floor facing Jerusalem. If there are sheets, garments, or other items with the deceased’s blood on them, pack them away to give to the rabbi for disposal.
Under Jewish law, the body should not be left unattended from the time of death until burial. It’s common practice to cover the body with a sheet until the chevra kadisha (an organization that prepares bodies for burial) comes. In many instances, family members will initially sit with the body, reading psalms and saying prayers. Families may also bring in friends or community members, known as “shomers,” to sit with and watch the body until the funeral.
If your loved one dies in a hospital or other medical facility, you’ll need to work closely with officials and staff to ensure that Jewish traditions are maintained. While members of the Jewish faith may agree in advance to donate organs, Jewish custom typically considers an autopsy to be an act of disrespect for the body.
If you are not present at the time of death, it’s traditional to respond with the following blessing when you learn about it:
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of the universe, the True Judge”
In many Jewish traditions, mourners will also tear an article of clothing upon hearing of the death of a loved one, although some traditions follow these customs at the funeral instead.
Once the shomers are in place, you’ll want to contact your rabbi, as well as the funeral director, so that plans can immediately be formulated for a memorial and burial. Jewish practice calls for the body to be committed to the earth as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours. While the body is being watched, family members will typically prepare the house for the ritual sitting of Shiva, which will start upon return from the burial and last for seven days. That involves covering mirrors, setting up low stools and other practices.
Gutterman’s Will Guide You In Your Time of Loss
At Gutterman’s, we have served the needs of members of the Jewish faith for more than 125 years, providing comprehensive funeral and burial services to families and individuals in New York and Florida. We understand your need to grieve and to provide a dignified memorial to your loved one, even in the midst of a pandemic, but we also respect and acknowledge the social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines necessary to safeguard everyone’s health. We understand that protocols are evolving on a regular basis and we are carefully monitoring guidelines established by state and national health officials. Wewill govern our actions and services in ways that respect your wishes and promote public safety. Current guidelines are on our home page. We are always available by phone, text message or videoconference to help you after the death of a loved one. To learn how we can help, call us at one of the numbers below. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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Rockville Centre: (516)764-9400 | Woodbury: (516)921-5757 | Brooklyn: (718)284-1500
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