What Do You Know About Burial and Shiva?
1. Why in Jewish tradition is the body of a dead person guarded and tended from the time of death until burial?
The practice of guarding a body may have originated from a desire to prevent it from being harmed by animals. Some people also believe that the soul hovers near the body between death and burial and it is therefore a kindness to keep the dead company until the burial. A similar line of thought suggests that because a person’s spirit is in a state of distress and confusion immediately after death, reading Psalms and remaining by the body may help comfort the spirit. In addition, knowing that a shomeir (a person who sits with the body, from the root containing the Hebrew letters shin-mem-reish, meaning “guards” or “keepers”) is with their loved one can be a great comfort to family and friends. It is also a gesture of caring and respect.
Some Jewish communities have established chevrot kadisha (sacred societies of men and women who look after the deceased) or related organizations to help families honor their loved ones with Jewish rituals during the time between death and burial. “In all cases, it is a mitzvah (sacred obligation) for friends and congregants to share in the duties and responsibilities of caring for the deceased and their grieving families.” (Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsum 5754.8)
2. What does a person performing shmira (guarding the body before burial) traditionally do while sitting with the dead person?
When sitting with the deceased, the person performing shmira recites Psalms that speak of God as our protector and comforter and are intended to comfort the spirit of the dead person.
3. Can taharah (the ritual washing and preparing of the body for burial) be performed on a person whose organs have been donated after death?
The Jewish people so value human life that organ donation is allowed after brain death. The Union for Reform Judaism Bio-Ethics Program Guide affirms that organ donation “is a modern mitzvah rooted in the value of saving a life (pikuach nefesh).” After the donation, the surgeons close the resulting wounds tightly with sutures, allowing the ritual of taharah to be performed with few, if any, variations.
4. In what color(s) shroud are Jews traditionally buried?
Tachrichim, or burial shrouds, are traditionally white, which symbolizes ritual purity. This color choice is based on Isaiah 1:18: “Be your sins like crimson. They can turn snow-white.” In the 1st century C.E., the Talmudic sage Rabbi Gamliel was distressed to see dead bodies dumped by the side of the road by poor Jewish people who could not afford fancy burial garments and caskets. As a result, he ordered that upon his death, he was to be buried in unadorned cotton garments in a plain wooden casket and ruled that all Jews should do so as well (Moed Katan 27b). To this day, many Jews follow Rabbi Gamliel’s model.
5. Why are caskets kept closed before and during the Jewish funeral service?
In Jewish practice, the casket is closed at the cemetery and generally at the funeral home. Reform Judaism follows this custom: “We insist on [a closed casket] when services are conducted in the synagogue itself and the cemetery chapel” (Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsum 151–152). Although some Orthodox Jews state other reasons for this custom, for Reform Jews it is a way to show respect for the dead. By keeping the casket closed, the emphasis is on the deceased’s legacy and life, not the person’s current appearance.
6. When a Star of David is placed on a casket, on what part of the casket is it placed?
The Star of David is usually placed on the top of the casket nearer to the deceased’s feet. This allows those performing the burial to correctly position the casket so that the person’s head is on the side where the headstone will be placed, or, on a slope, on the more “comfortable” uphill side.
7. What is the message of the Mourner’s Kaddish (Mourner’s Prayer)?
The Mourner’s Kaddish praises God. It does not mention death or mourning in any way. It is a reminder that no matter how angry we may be with God in the depths of our mourning, we can be grateful to God for all God has provided to us.
8. What is the last thing Jews often do before leaving a cemetery after a burial?
Jews often wash their hands upon leaving a cemetery in order to create a separation from death upon returning to the world of the living. This practice may have originated from a desire to wash away any evil spirits that may have clung to a mourner in the cemetery, but it’s also practical: mourners’ hands are liable to be dirty if they helped to toss a handful (or shovelful) of dirt onto the casket, as is traditionally done.
9. When does the seven-day mourning period called shiva traditionally start?
Shiva, meaning seven, begins on the day of the burial. The timing ensures that even those families making many funeral-related arrangements are able to stop and mourn. “Three days are the minimum period of mourning in Reform Judaism, and in some communities, they have taken the place of shiva as a whole. This, however, is not the desirable norm. Reform Jews ought to observe all seven days of shiva.” (Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, URJ Press)
10. Why are mirrors covered in a house of mourning during the shiva period?
One origin of covering mirrors during shiva was the fear in ancient times that a person’s spirit could be caught in a mirror. Today, mirrors are sometimes covered to enable family members of the deceased not to focus on their appearance, but on their loss. Other people cover their mirrors to continue their family’s traditional observances during mourning.
Susan Esther Barnes is a founding member of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, CA. She blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Rabbi Ana Bonnheim is the program director for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Founders’ Fellowship. She lives in Charlotte, NC.