Death and Burial Ceremonies in Judaism

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ideally, a dying person should recite the Shema and confess his or her sins before death. That cannot always be the case. After a person dies, the corpse is cleansed and dressed in plain white shrouds. The idea being that we are all equal in death.

Men frequently have their tallit placed on them as their about to be buried. In Judaism, burying in the ground is the only system accepted by tradition. In ancient times, people might be buried in caves, family mausoleums also were used.

In antiquity, it was actually common to have burial carried up in two stages. At first, they would place a corpse in a cave. They would let that corpse decomposed for a period of a year. They believed that during that year the corpse was actually being purged of all its sins. After a year, the family would return to the cave and gather the bones. That was considered a holiday for the family. They then placed the bones in a small container. We have discovered over the years hundreds and hundreds of such containers throughout ancient Palestine. Some of them had beautiful artwork.

Quite frankly, one has to wonder whether that system would be introduced at some future stage in the State of Israel, since burial can only take place in the ground, and they are running out of ground. This is not a very economical system. The system of gathering bones together in a small container might be a solution.

In many places throughout Israel today no coffins are used. The death are placed directly in the ground. Cremation still is shunned by most Jews today. Some people consider it outright forbidden. Others say it is not a problem.

After burial, a series of mourning periods begin. The first period lasts for 7 days, hence the phrase shiva. Shiva in Hebrew is seven. During that period, mourners refrain from all everyday activities. They usually remain at home and receive condolence visits. It is customary to conduct daily prayers at a mourner’s house during those seven days.

The second stage lasts 30 days, when mourning ends for all except the immediate offspring of the dead, meaning the children of the death parent. A third stage lasts for one complete year. During that year after death, the child of the dead parent would recite a special prayer known as the kaddish. The word kaddish Aramaic means sanctification.

There is a misconception about his prayer. The prayer itself was not written as a prayer about the dead. It was a prayer that was recited originally at the end of prayer sessions and at the end of study sessions. It is a prayer that describes God’s kingdom in this world. It is just one long list of phrases for God. Beginning in medieval Germany, this prayer was assigned to be recited by mourners.

People would visit the cemetery one year after the death of parents. Very often, in some communities, a tombstone is only set up a year after death at the cemetery. Then they would visit the same cemetery on a yearly basis. On the anniversary of the death, the child again recites the kaddish.

Jewish Cemeteries

Jewish cemeteries have an interesting history to them. According to Jewish tradition, only Jews may be buried in a Jewish cemetery. As a result, some very distressing cases took place where people had doubtful Jewish pedigrees about them. All sorts of discussions and debates arose. Should this person be buried in the Jewish cemetery or not? In fact, in the modern State of Israel, the major debate that split the country into two, about who is and who is not a Jew, began with the question of burying in the cemetery.

Burial is obviously a very sensitive issue. Jews connect all sorts of beliefs with burial. One of them in particular has a fascinating history. Jews want to be buried in the land of Israel, even if they had never seen the land. This is a custom that probably goes back to the 2nd or 3rd century of the Common Era. This was due to all sorts of religious beliefs. Some believed that if you were buried in the land, your sins would be atoned for. Another belief was the dead who are buried in the land of Israel would rise up first when the Messiah comes.

We read stories of people having their coffins sent to Israel for burial. There is one Rabbinic story that describes two rabbis on the outskirts of the city of Tiberius. They see coffins coming for burial from the diaspora. One of them says, “now you come, in death. You had no need for God’s inheritance to Israel during your lifetime. Now, by sending your bones, you are contaminating the land”. This issue of burial was a very sensitive one throughout Jewish history.