Death and Mourning

Death is part of life.  Experiencing the loss of a loved one is unspeakably painful, a unique yet universal experience.  The Judaic approach to death and mourning may feel awkward to those unfamiliar with its ways.  However, when viewed from the perspective of the bereaved we see the embodiment of “compassionate expectations” as the community shelters mourners during the initial period of intense grief and then facilitates their steps of returning to everyday life.  The practical and emotional needs of the bereaved are paramount; community behavior defers to the mourners. 

This journey begins with the last days of the person about to encounter death.  As with many cultures and faiths, the parting words of a dying person carry special weight and import. 

Deathbed:  the person nearing death voices a final prayer acknowledging HaShem’s sovereignty and accepting HaShem’s imminent decision between life and death.  The prayer concludes with,

“Father of orphans and Justice of widows,

protect my cherished family whose souls are bound with mine.

Into Your hand I entrust my spirit.

May You redeem me, L-rd, G-d of truth.  Amen and amen.

“The L-rd is King, the L-rd was King, and the L-rd will be King for ever and ever. (3 x)

“Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and all time. (3 x)

“The L-rd, He is G-d.  (7 x)

“Listen, Yisra’el:  the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.”

 

Much of this is familiar; we see snippets from Yeshua’s final words, from the Torah service, from Moshe’s final words, from the Yom Kippur service, and from the Sh’ma.  It is good and proper for us to be reminded each time we recite these words that they will one day be our own final words.

Aninut:  Normally lasting one to two days, this is the period between a person’s death and burial.  Family members are occupied with funeral arrangements; they are overwhelmed by grief.  During this time, the community refrains from condolence calls or visits.  Contact with the family should be practical and specific, not social.

Levaya HaMot:  The formal funeral service begins with a familiar reading from Pirkei Avot 3:1 which includes the admonition for all present to, “Know where you came from, where you are going, and before whom you will have to give an account and reckoning.”  T’hillim 91, so often a source of comfort, is recited to comfort mourners as they make their way to the gravesite.  Various portions of Tanaḥ follow; then (provided a minyan is present) Kaddish Eḥar Hakvurah is read.  Eloquent and comforting, this beautiful Kaddish interweaves glimpses of the Messianic Age into the words so familiar from our daily services (wording unique to this kaddish are in italics):

Magnified and sanctified may His great name be, in the world that will in future be renewed, reviving the dead and raising them up to eternal life.

He will rebuild the city of Jerusalem and in it re-establish His Temple.

He will remove alien worship from the earth and restore to its place the worship of Heaven.

Then the Holy One, blessed be He, will reign in His sovereignty and splendor.

May it be in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of all the house of Israel, swiftly and soon – and say Amen.  May His great name be blessed for ever and all time.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, raised and honored, uplifted and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond any blessing, song, praise and consolation uttered in the world – and say: Amen.

May there be great peace from heaven, and life for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.

May He who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.

 

Shiva:  The seven (“sheva”) days after burial is the time for condolence visits and calls.  In keeping with “compassionate expectations” the general notion is that the grief will start to ebb a bit after the initial three days – although the entire first week understandably remains a heart-rending time for the bereaved.  Within the Shiva house all indications of vanity and wealth are set aside:  mirrors are covered, seating is limited to the floor or low stools.  The mourners do not leave the house or attend to personal comfort or adornment.  They eat plain meals.  A memorial candle burns for the week.

Shiva visits might initially seem encumbered by an abundance of protocol; upon further examination, however, the tender deference to the mourners’ comfort is apparent.  Consider the following from the perspective of someone negotiating the fog – the numbing intensity – of the first week after losing a loved one:

  • Shiva Visits:  Knock quietly upon arrival and let yourself in.  Do not expect greetings nor give greetings to others and remove your shoes at the door.  Do not mention the deceased to the mourner, rather, let the mourner initiate such conversations while being ready to share memories of the deceased.  Avoid idle conversation and nervous chatter.  Remember, it’s okay to not talk; you are there to comfort the mourner, whether the protocol feels alien to you is irrelevant.  If possible, help by providing simple meals and taking on basic chores.
  • Kaddish Yatom: Kaddish Yatom, commonly known as Mourner’s Kaddish, is recited daily by the mourner for essentially the first year, although the exact ending point varies; usually eleven months.  It is a kindness to help with assuring daily minyans during this first week.

Shloshim:  Literally meaning “thirty,” this is the first month following death / burial during which the family gradually reconnects to daily life.  Life’s necessities compel the bereaved back into household and workplace duties; friends and extended family, by remembering to include the bereaved in basic social interactions, draw them back into community.  The resumption of daily activities is part of life and it is good and appropriate and healthy as the bereaved starts to look up and out.

Avelut:  Translated as bereavement, lamenting, or mourning, avelut continues for several months following death / burial, concluding at the unveiling (of the gravestone).  Societal activities fully resume after this period. 

Yahrzeit:  Translated “time of year” (Yiddish), this is the annual observance during which the mourner re-visits their grief.  The tradition is two-fold:  light a Yahrzeit candle (which burns for at least 24 hours) and recite Kaddish Yatom.  A final yet unending “compassionate expectation,” Yahrzeit comforts the mourner with the assurance that they will never be forced to completely forget the deceased.

Compassion without expectations can be crippling to the bereaved, giving tacit permission to cling to their sorrow.  Expectations without compassion can be harsh, further wounding the bereaved by ignoring their pain.  Compassionate expectations give the mourner space to grieve while also reminding them that:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven;

A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to mourn, and a time to dance –“

Kohelet 3:1-2a, 4b

 

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