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Death and Mourning

Dog standing in front of a sunset

My condolences to you and your family on the loss of your beloved pet. For many of us, our pets are like a member of the family, and when a pet dies, the grief is deep and intense.

Judaism does not permit animals to be buried with people, and it would be surprising to find a Jewish cemetery that permitted the practice. There are, however, other Jewish practices that can support those who experience the loss of pet. This essay, in particular, speaks to the grief we feel when a beloved pet dies and offers some resources and ideas to bring comfort.

There are other ways, too, to express one’s grief over the loss of beloved animal and to honor the role of the pet in the life of your family. You might hold a burial ceremony in a garden or on family property, giving family members the opportunity to offer remarks about what the pet has meant to your family. You might also consider honoring your dog’s memory by giving tzedakah (a charitable contribution) to an animal shelter or in support of a dog park.  

Wrought Iron Star of David

While it is true that, historically, only Jews were permitted to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, the prevalence of interfaith families has necessitated new options.

Many Jewish cemeteries have opened sections where Jews and people from other faith and cultural traditions can be buried together. Some communities have built new Jewish cemeteries where the entire cemetery is available to people of all faiths.

Reform clergy have expressed their willingness to bury interfaith partners alongside one another. The best source for what’s available in your community will be your local Reform congregation (find a congregation near you) or Jewish funeral home.

Learn more about Reform Jewish 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.

stones on a headstone

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 also light a yahrzeit candle on Yom Kippur and on the final day of PassoverSukkot, and Shavuot. The worship service on Yom Kippur and 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.

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 listen to memories that the mourner wishes to share, or 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.

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