1. What does the Chevra Kadisha do?
The Jewish burial society (the Chevra Kadisha) provides a valuable and critical service to the Jewish community. Those who serve on the Chevra Kadisha do not do it for fame and fortune. They are special volunteers who have a certain calling for this mitzvah of preparing the dead for burial.
The laws of preparation are very detailed and specific. Please take comfort in knowing that those who are preparing your loved one for burial are doing it with sensitivity and are taking the greatest care to respect the dignity of the departed. They are also acting with a deep sense of spiritual commitment to the entire process. They carefully and respectfully cleanse the body and then cover it in a special burial shroud. They are called day and night to perform this act and rarely receive any recognition for it.
2. What are the most important things to know about burial?
- Cremation is forbidden in Jewish law. The body, intact, must go back to the earthA casket should be as simple as possible – ideally a plain, unvarnished pine box. This symbolizes the fact that we leave this world and its materialism behind. All we take with us is our deeds. Don’t let any funeral director try to convince you that the more you loved the person, the more you should spend on a casket. If you want to do something of value for your loved one, give the money you save on a casket to tzedakah (a Jewish charity) in his or her memory.
- We do not have “open casket” ceremonies. We do not put makeup on the bodies, embalm them, or dress them in the clothing of this world. When people have died, we need to let them go. Putting makeup on them, viewing them as if they were alive, or embalming to preserve them are ideas antithetical to Judaism. Your loved one is not a body but a soul. Trying to hold onto the body misdirects everyone’s focus to what is physical instead of what is spiritual. In Israel, caskets are not used. The person is wrapped in a burial shroud and placed directly in the ground.
- Those who come to the funeral to comfort the mourners should actively participate in the burial itself. We are supposed to bury our own. Participation is called chessed shel emet, a “kindness of truth”. It is an act of giving on the purest level, for the one you are burying can never do anything for you. The task is painful and it takes time, but it is very important. The casket should be completely covered with earth. This is done by the friends and family of the direct mourners, not the mourners themselves. And then Kaddish is said by the mourners.
The first shovelful (usually placed the Rabbi or the one conducting the service at the graveside), is made with the back of the shovel to symbolize that we are not trying to do this in the most efficient physical way. We are here to do the mitzvah of burial, not to fill a hold in the ground.
Following Kaddish the direct mourners leave, and those who have come to the burial stay behind to finish the burial. The earth should now completely fill the grave, to the point where a small mound is seen at the top, differentiating it from the flat ground around it.
3. Must I sit shiva for the full seven days?
The word shiva comes from the word sheva, which means seven. Seven is a very significant number in Judaism. God created the world in seven days. The seventh day is Shabbat, the holy Sabbath. Seven signifies completion in this world. Observing the shive for the proper seven days signifies that your loved one completed his or her lifetime in this world. As mourners, we sit and mourn for the full seven days in order to begin the completion of the initial stages of grief and healing. A complete seven-day shiva brings the most difficult period to an end and also builds a bridge to slowly return to our daily lives.
4. Where is the best place to hold the shiva?
If possible, the optimum place to have the shiva is at the home of the departed. If necessary, those who are required to sit shiva can do so in more than one place. Often a sibling must return home to another city following the burial and can sit shiva away from the rest of the family. The ideal is to be together but that is not always possible.
5. Must I provide food and beverages for those coming to pay a shiva call?
No. Do not turn the shiva into a party. Food and drinks create a festive atmosphere that you want to avoid. Friends, and loved ones who want to send food should do so for the direct mourners, not for those coming to comfort the mourners.
6. Are people supposed to come to the shiva at any time, day or night?
It is permissible to have specific hours for the shiva that can be announced at the funeral and posted on the door of the shiva house.
7. Must we have services at the shiva house?
The best practice is to have prayer services so that the direct mourners can say Kaddish with a minyan (prayer quorum). Three services are held each day: Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Maariv (evening). The latter two are usually held together, with Mincha just before sundown, followed by a short break during which someone can speak about the departed. Then Maariv immediately follows. If it is not possible to have all the services, try to hold at least one of them so that Kaddish is said daily.
8. What if I can’t say Kaddish every day for the eleven months required of me?
Kaddish must be said for the departed. It is required for thirty days following the burial for everyone except a parent. If a parent passes away, his or her children must say Kaddish daily for eleven months. If it is not possible to do this, or if you know that it will not be done on certain days, you can give tzedakah to someone to say it on your behalf.*
9. I know I should avoid music and festive events during the year of mourning. But what if I am invited to a wedding?
You can attend the wedding ceremony but not the reception. If it is very, very important for you to attend the reception because of the nature of your relationship with the family of the bride and groom, then you must be part of the staff, so to speak, in order to attend. That means you must be a temporary waiter or waitress so that you are working and not just attending.
10. If I am married to one who is a direct mourner, what is my role in the process?
You do not sit shiva, and you are not restricted by the laws of the stages of mourning. You simply need to be respectful and behave in a manner that is appropriate for the situation involving a loss and for the overall feeling of the house of mourning.
*Kaddish can be arranged through the National Association of Chevra Kadisha Arrange Kaddish
Reprinted with permission from Remember My Soul by Lori Palatnick with Rabbi Yaakov Palatnik (Khal Publishing, 2018).
About the authors
Lori Palatnik and Rabbi Yaakov Palatnik are Jewish dynamic educators and writers who have touched thousands of lives. They have appeared on radio and television and lecture throughout the world, illuminating classical Jewish wisdom for the contemporary mind and soul. The Palatniks regularly counsel individuals and families who are dealing with the loss of a loved one. Lori is the founding director of Momentum, an international initiative that together with Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and over 300 partnering organizations, brings thousands of Jewish women to Israel each year for a highly subsidized 8-day transformational experience.
The Palatniks live in Jerusalem, Israel