The principle governing the care of the body immediately following death is the sacredness of man. A human being is equated with a Torah scroll that was impaired and can no longer be used at religious services. While the ancient scroll no longer serves any useful ritual purpose, it is revered for the exalted function it once filled. Man was created in the image of God and, although the pulse of life is no more, the human form must be respected for having once embodied the spirit of God, and for the character and the personality it housed. The manner of respect is governed and detailed by religious tradition rather than by personal sentiment and whim alone. The following are some of the basic guidelines for the care of the deceased at the time of death

  1. During the last minutes of life no one in the presence of the deceased may leave, excepting those whose emotions are uncontrollable, or the physically ill. It is a matter of the greatest respect to watch over a person as he passes from this world on to the next.

  2. After death has been ascertained, the eyes and the mouth of the deceased must be closed, either by the children or friends or relatives, and a sheet should be drawn over his face.

  3. While it has been a custom for many years to rend the clothes and recite the blessing of the "True Judge" at the time of death, it is now customary to do this at the funeral service. At that time all the relatives are assembled, the rabbi supervises the correct manner of rending the clothing, and leads in the correct recital of the blessings. The details of the rending may be found in a separate chapter below.

  4. The position of the body should be so oriented that the feet face the doorway. Other than this, the deceased should not be touched or moved, except for his own honor (such as straightening the body if it is found in an awkward position, or moving it if it has been found in environs not considered sufficiently respectful). Some Orthodox Jews retain the custom of placing the body on the floor approximately 20 minutes after death and pouring water on the floor as a sign to friends and neighbors that a death has occurred.

  5. A candle should be placed near the head of the deceased. According to some customs many candles should be placed all around the person.

  6. A beautiful and moving custom calls upon relatives and friends to ask forgiveness of the deceased, at this time, for any harm or discomfort they might have caused him during his lifetime.

  7. The mirrors in the entire house are covered to deemphasize the beauty and the ornamentation of the flesh at a time when, in the same house, another person's body has begun to decay. Mirrors are covered also to avoid personal vanity during moments of tragedy and to diminish the usual over-concern with one's appearance. Another explanation of this custom is that the image of God, reflected in the mirror, has been diminished by the recent death. This subject is considered in greater detail below.

  8. Psalms 23 and 91 are recited. (Click here for texts of these Psalms in Hebrew, transliteration and translation. For Commentary on these texts see The Funeral Service and The Processional and Burial below.)

  9. Personal behavior in the room of the deceased should be consonant with the highest degree of respect for his person. There may be no eating, drinking or smoking in his presence. Outside the room proper, however, these are permitted. No derogatory remarks about the deceased may be voiced, even though, objectively, they may be true. Discussion in the room should concentrate solely on the deceased and his personal qualities, or on the funeral arrangements. There should be no singing or playing of music.

  10. The rabbi should be called. He will notify the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) which will care for the remains. Then the funeral director, who will arrange for the local attending doctor to provide the medical certification of death and for the removal of the body, should be called.

  11. From the moment of death until burial, the deceased may not be left alone. Therefore, the family must arrange for a person called a shomer (watcher) to be at his side at all times. While it is preferable for the watcher to be a member of the family or a personal friend, this is not always possible. In such cases, a person must be engaged to watch the body and recite from the Book of Psalms. The rabbi or funeral director will be able to make such arrangements for you, but the mourner should ascertain clearly whether the watcher is reliable, for he must remain awake and should recite Psalms all through the night.

  12. If death occurs on the Sabbath, care should be taken not to light the candles near the deceased. Only the most minimal arrangements may be made on the Sabbath, and these only out of respect for the dead. The dead may not be removed on the Sabbath by Jew or gentile. A watcher should be present during the Sabbath.

If death occurs in the hospital, 4 and 5 may not be practicable, but all other customs should be observed in the hospital room and later at the funeral chapel.

The funeral director is paid to serve you and your family, your religious sentiments and your wishes. He is certainly able to accommodate you in the observance of all traditional Jewish customs. There is no valid reason for him not to comply with your wishes. If you experience difficulty in this regard, consult competent rabbinic authority.