When death occurs, the bereaved family faces a very difficult time; but so does the deceased. According to the spiritual traditions of Judaism articulated in the Talmud and Kabbalah, the soul does not completely leave this world until after the burial. Thus, the period from death to interment is very bewildering for the soul, for it is in a vulnerable state of transition, disconnected from both the past and the future. The presence of others who, through their respect and prayers, show that they care, is very comforting to the soul, as the souls of the living provide a frame of reference for the soul of the newly departed.

Indeed, the fact that Jewish tradition treats the soul of the deceased as aware and as a real person, is in itself a comfort and help in this most difficult time for those who are close to him or her. To do things in a way comforting to the deceased is therefore comforting to those who care for him or her.

This is also the time when several important decisions will need to be made by the next-of-kin regarding the funeral arrangements. Unfortunately, in most countries, many of the common morticianary practices (such as autopsy, embalming, displaying the body, cremation) violate the Jewish traditions of respect for the dignity of the body. Ideally, one should forewarn this in advance by composing a "living will" that addresses these issues.

Getting Practical

Immediately following the moment of death, G‑d forbid, a series of practical and religious issues take effect. The key principles of all of them are: a) respect for the dignity and holiness of the body, the vessel for the soul and self of the departed; b) the expeditious return of the body to the earth from which it was formed; c) aiding and fortifying the soul in its continuing spiritual journey.

Laws and Rituals:

  • "The True Judge" blessing. Those present at the time of death recite the blessing: Baruch Dayan Ha'emet — "Blessed be the True Judge." (The full version of this blessing is customarily said at the keriah--the "rending of the garments"--during the funeral service.

  • Covering the body. After death is definitely established, the eyes and mouth of the deceased should be closed and a sheet or other cover drawn over the person's face; there is a tradition for a child or close relative to do this—if he or she can cope emotionally with it.

  • Candles. The body of the deceased should then be placed on the floor, and candles should be lit near the deceased's head.

    (When death occurs in the hospital, the above may not be practically possible; but all other customs should be observed. What cannot be done there should be done later at the funeral chapel.)

  • Forgiveness. While lowering the body to the floor, forgiveness should be asked of the deceased.

  • Psalms. After lighting the candles, Psalms should be recited, including Psalms 23, verse 17 of Psalm 90, and Psalm 91. (Click here for texts of these Psalms in Hebrew, transliteration and translation.)

  • Arrange for the "Taharah." The family's rabbi and the funeral home should be called at this point—if it has not already been done. The funeral home should be informed that a "taharah" will be needed.

  • Dignity of the deceased. The human body is sacred, and its integrity, privacy and dignity are vigilantly protected by Jewish law and tradition. Also after the person has passed away, the body which was the vessel and vehicle to the soul deserves our reverence and respect. Anyone in the presence of the deceased should act with the same respect and deference toward the deceased we would show for the person when alive.

  • Watching over the body. Where possible, there should always be someone with the body until the funeral. This is know as shemira ("honor guard"). Those according this honor to the deceased should recite prayers or psalms during their "shift," as this brings comfort to the soul of the deceased.

  • No autopsy should be performed (except under special circumstances) and the body should not be embalmed, displayed or cremated — all of which are gross desecrations of the body's sanctity according to Jewish law and tradition. (For further discussion see the following section, Funeral and Burial, and In Detail and Readings.)

  • The burial should take place as soon as possible, preferably on the very day of the passing, and should be delayed only for truly important reasons, as sanctioned by Torah law. (See In Detail.)