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Death and Mourning

Answer By: 
Rabbi Julie Zupan
headstone with stones on it

My mother passed away in late November and I am planning the unveiling. I was thinking of a day in May, June, or July, and I think it should be a Sunday. Are there any specific times or dates I must avoid? Also, other loved ones are buried nearby; is it appropriate to acknowledge them as well? I have a copy of some prayers. Is there anything else I need? People are travelling some distance and I want there to be some substance to the ceremony.

Our condolences on the death of your mother. May her memory be a blessing.

In terms of scheduling, you will want to avoid Shabbat (Saturdays) and Jewish holidays, when unveilings generally are not held and Jewish cemeteries typically are closed. You will want to check the calendar for the dates of Shavuot and Tishah B’Av, holidays that occur in the spring and summer, respectively.

In addition, we recommend you confirm the date and time with the cemetery for several reasons. Often they are juggling multiple funerals; they may prepare the site beforehand by covering the marker with a cloth and having chairs, water, and a bag of yarmulkes and prayer pamphlets available; and there may be rules about placing stones on the marker. If it is permitted, they may provide stones for that purpose.

The unveiling ritual is brief and is custom, not Jewish law, so there is a fair amount of leeway regarding content. Typically, we recite Psalm 23, El Maleh Rachamim, the Mourners’ Kaddish, and other readings or poems that resonate with those present or were beloved by the deceased. This explanation of what to expect at an unveiling may help you with your planning.

Although the intent of the ceremony is to honor your mother and dedicate her grave marker, it is appropriate to briefly acknowledge other loved ones who are buried nearby. You might invite one or two friends or family members to share a loving anecdote about your mother, but we advise that neither you nor others eulogize as one does at a funeral.

We’d like to visit my mother-in-law’s grave on her birthday, but it coincides with the first day of Passover. Is it appropriate to visit her grave on Passover? If we do, should we light a memorial candle? 

In Jewish tradition, it is common to visit the graves of loved ones around Jewish holidays, especially before the Jewish new year. We think of our loved ones often, especially at significant moments in our lives such as holidays, lifecycle celebrations, and whenever something occurs that we wish we could share with them. We feel their physical absence keenly in these moments.

According to Jewish custom, it is preferable to visit graves before a holiday, so that on the day of the holiday, we can focus attention on observing or celebrating.

Judaism does not traditionally memorialize the birthday of loved ones who have died; instead, we mark the anniversary of their death, also called their yahrzeit.

With all that in mind, do what feels right for you and your family. You should check beforehand, however, that the cemetery will be open when you plan to visit because many Jewish cemeteries will be closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Typically, a yahrzeit or memorial candle is not lit at the grave, but rather in mourners’ homes. We light the candle shortly before sundown on the day before the anniversary of the date of death and it burns for 24 hours. We also light a yahrzeit candle on the final day of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. The worship service on the concluding morning of these holidays includes special yizkor memorial prayers that invite worshippers to remember loved ones who have died. Find a congregation near you to attend a yizkor service at the conclusion of Passover, Sukkot, or Shavuot.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

Shiva is a time when we reminisce, remember, recapture memories of a loved one. As such, what we usually do during a condolence call is to listen to those memories that the mourner wishes to share or to talk about other subjects initiated by the mourner that may have nothing to do with his or her loss.

It is traditional to not knock or ring but rather just to enter a house of mourning, so as not to bother the mourners. Many Reform Jews do not observe this custom today, but it is a good idea to keep it in mind and try the door before you ring the bell when paying a shiva call.

As you enter the house of mourning, a member or friend of the family may meet you and usher you into the living room. It is customary to wait to speak until after the mourner speaks. But, once you are acknowledged, all you need say is “I’m sorry.” That simple phrase, a touch, a hug will mean more to the mourner than you can ever know. Usually, you need not stay more than thirty to forty-five minutes. During your visit, supporting, listening, and responding to the mourner should be your primary goal.

Except for food, it is not customary to bring anything with you to the house of mourning. Again, your presence is the main thing. If you wish to “do something,” make a contribution to the deceased’s favorite charity or synagogue fund. A particularly meaningful gesture for many Jews is to plant trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund.

Source: Rabbi Daniel B. SymeThe Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (URJ Press, 2004)

See also: Preparing for a Jewish Funeral: A Checklist, The "New" Jewish Funeral, What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral, Preparing for a Jewish Funeral: A Guide.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

Traditional Jews make a point of visiting the graves of loved ones during the month of Elul just prior to the onset of the High Holidays, on the day before Rosh HaShanah, or the day before Yom Kippur. Many Jews also visit the cemetery on the loved one’s birthday, an anniversary, or a special personal day. Visitations to the cemetery are not made on Shabbat or Jewish festival holidays.

Jewish tradition discourages excessive mourning and constant cemetery visitations, especially if it becomes an impediment to a return to life. Jeremiah 22:10 proclaims: "Weep ye not [too much] for the dead." Wisely, though, Jewish practice provides for a regular, structured, communal expression of reminiscence, through yahrzeit and Yizkor.

Source: Rabbi Daniel B. Syme, The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (URJ Press, 2004)

A girl crying in a school hallway

Terrorism, gun violence, hate crimes, and natural disasters are all much too common in today’s world. In a digital world dominated by social media and instantaneous news updates, it is often difficult to shield even the youngest children from such realities. What does Judaism teach us about helping our children to cope with terrible news that even we, as adults, find challenging to understand or process? Reform clergy and educators look to Jewish teachings to help guide us in these troubling times with these resources that can offer helpful guidance:

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Yes, a person who died by suicide may be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

The ancient prohibition against doing so is based upon the conception of suicide as the conscious and willful taking of one’s life. Over time, however, Jewish tradition has come to view suicide as the result of mental and emotional desperation and, virtually by definition, an irrational, non-willful act. Jewish law puts an extraordinarily strict construction upon the definition of “suicide”; therefore, even if all evidence points to suicide and even if that evidence satisfies the investigative authorities as to the cause of death, our custom is to bury these individuals, to engage in mourning rituals for them, and to eulogize them appropriately.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
A Jewish cemetary

An unveiling is the ceremony at which at tombstone is erected in memory of one who has died. While this is a relatively modern custom, we find it roots in the pillar Jacob set up over the grave of his beloved Rachel (Genesis 35:20). This ceremony is usually held about one year after the burial, though in Israel, unveilings are commonly held one month after a burial. An unveiling is a brief ceremony and there is no specific liturgy. Often El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer, and the Mourner’s Kaddish are recited. These may be accompanied by psalms of comfort, meaningful readers and brief remembrances of the deceased. Since an unveiling often brings together family and friends, the ceremony is sometimes followed by a meal at the home of a family member.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell
leaving a stone on a Jewish gravestone

The earliest graves may have been covered by a mound of stones. Though we erect tombstones today, a stone or pebble placed on a head or footstone reminds us of those first humble gravesites. This simple act has come to be a great sign of respect of our deceased loved ones.

It is come to signify that the grave has recently been visited and that the deceased have not been forgotten. To make this simple ritual even more meaningful, some bring a pebble or stone from their own garden to place on the tombstone, or select a brightly colored stone to place at the grave. Placing a stone on the grave of a loved one is a tradition that may be personalized to create meaning and bring comfort.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Jewish tradition holds that since life is a gift from God, it is to be cherished until the last moments of life. We are instructed not to take any actions that may accelerate death. All of us wish to avoid pain and suffering, and none of us wishes to see a loved one in agony. But suffering does not, in and of itself, justify the taking of a human life.

Jewish tradition does not demand that we struggle against illness with all our might until the bitter end. Our duty is to practice medicine, to heal, to save life; and once it becomes clear that our technologies no longer serve what we would define as a reasonably therapeutic purpose, we are permitted to withdraw those treatments, even if in doing so we allow the patient to die sooner than he or she otherwise would have died. Indeed, since tradition suggests that it is forbidden to delay unnecessarily the inevitable and imminent death of a terminal patient, it is arguably our obligation to discontinue these therapies.

Our obligation to heal the sick and to care for them does not include assisting a patient to end his or her life. Judaism has always held that assisted suicide is incompatible with our teachings. Such practices are rife with the potential for tragic abuse, and are incompatible with Jewish teaching, as we understand it.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher
Rubble from a hurricane or other natural disaster

Hearing about and seeing images of people weeping, clutching loved ones in relief or in grief while standing in front of devastated homes and schools evokes painful feelings of sadness, fear and helplessness. No matter how old or young we are, we imagine ourselves in the same situation, imagine losing our lives, our loved ones or our homes. Even more troubling is the loss of a sense of security; try as we might to convince ourselves that this event could not happen where we live, most of us are plunged, briefly or more enduringly, into an awareness of the fragility of life.

How can we help ourselves and our children not to stay in this place of anxiety and doubt?

It may seem like a paradox but acknowledging the reality even to young children can be the first step in moving forward. Often, when bad things happen people try to shield children by acting as if they don't know about the events or by moving steadfastly forward with routine as if nothing had happened. We adults may actually be trying to shield ourselves from the pain of not being able to totally protect our children and from feeling our own fears magnified as we see the more visible terror in the eyes of children. Yet, most sadness and fear can be better borne when the feelings are named and when we can offer one another an embrace, an acknowledgement of how hard it is to know such things can happen and when we can resolve together to do something to comfort and help those who have been affected.

We are all helped by determining what measures we can take to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe when disaster threatens and by doing what we can to take the steps that may limit the impact and frequency of even natural events like hurricanes and tornadoes. We can't control weather, we cannot always be made safe, but we can work together to be sure safety codes are enforced, can lobby for measures to limit global warming and we can have plans for how to respond if we hear a siren or weather warning.

These steps - compassionately sharing and naming our fears and sadness, helping ourselves and helping others - all contribute to an ability to shift our focus back to living in the present and to enjoying the times of relative security and wellbeing that most of us do have in our lives.

Children and adults alike may question how God could allow such things to happen. Some may conclude there is no God, others may conclude that God might exist but is not involved in each disaster because God has set natural forces into motion but does not now control weather or waves. There are those who are taught or who decide for themselves that God is punishing individuals or the the world for misdeeds. Many give up on the question of why and instead focus on how the idea of a loving God can be a source of comfort or inspiration to do good.

Difficult as it may be, allowing children and adults to express what they are thinking about God without challenging or correcting them in the direction of belief or disbelief seems to be the most helpful approach in reducing isolation and despair. What seems to matter most in restoring faith and trust is the way human beings move forward to help and comfort one another. The most important question for most of us appears not to be will bad things happen but rather will anyone be there to care, comfort and help.

Many of us will come to associate that with the Presence of God, others with the goodness in people - but, in either case, certainty of loving care is what enables people to go on with courage and hope in a world in which bad things do sometimes happen.

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