JEWISH FUNERALS AND IDEAS ABOUT DEATH
Grand Jewish Funeral in Cairo in 1911 According to Jewish custom, the bodies of the deceased are buried after death as soon as possible, preferably on the same day they die if possible. Because Jews believe that human beings are created in the image of God great care is taken with a body even when it is dead. The body is buried intact. If a person has died violently, all blood, organs and tissue are collected and placed with the body. Cremation is prohibited. Autopsies are allowed only in special cases. The deceased are not embalmed.
A corpse is regarded as extremely polluting. Simply touching the ground near a dead body can make a person impure. In the old days there were elaborate rituals to purify people who had any kind of contact with a dead body. See the Red Heifer.
Mourners ask for forgiveness for anything bad they have done to the deceased during their lives. Close relatives are expected to be deeply distressed and expected to stop eating meat, shaving, drinking alcohol, doing business and attending any kind of party or festivity.
Websites and Resources: Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Judaism and Jewish Resources shamash.org/trb/judaism ; Aish.com aish.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; torah’org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/judaism ; Judaism.com judaism.com ; ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history ; Wikipedia article on Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Origin of Judaism adath-shalom.ca ;Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish Culture and History Resources ddickerson.igc.org/judaica ;
Books: A Short History of Judaism by I. And D. Cohn-Sherlok (1994); The Gift of the Jews by Thomas Cahill; Ancient Biblical History Books: Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times by Donald Redford; Oxford Companion to the Bible ; Palestine Bible as History by Werner Keller; The Bible Unearthed by I. Finkelstein & N. Asher Silberman ; Historical Atlas of the Holy Lands by K. Farrington
Ancient Jewish Funeral Customs
At the time of Jesus, Jewish families built tombs in the hills throughout Judea and stored human remains in caves in ossuaries (boxes with bones). A newly deceased body world be laid on a rock shelf in the cave. When that body decomposed, family members would stack the bones inside the ossuaries and place the box into a niche. Over the years the caves became crowded with bones and boxes and to conserve space families often places the bones of several individuals into one box.
Describing Herod’s funeral several years after it happened Josephus Flavius wrote in the A.D. 1st century: “The bier was of solid gold, studded with precious stones and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colors; on this lay the body enveloped in purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold , the scepter beside the right hand.”
Before a Jewish Funeral
Everything done before and during the funeral is intended to honor the dead. When death is imminent no one is supposed to leave the room as dead should not left alone during the try time of traveling from one world to another and the living are supposed to witness the passing of the soul from one world to the next. Even so, often the only person at the bedside of the soon-to-be deceased is his or her spouse. According to traditional children are expected to be shielded from the unpleasant realities of disease and death even if they are in their 40s or 50s. After a person dies the eyes are closed, a sheet is placed over the head and the feet are pointed towards a doorway.
Immediately after a death, a single candle is lit and placed near the head of the deceased or many lit candles are placed around the entire body. This custom is linked to the Jewish belief that the spirit is like a light or fire. The flame on the candle represents the departed soul and “guards” the body from an invasion by negative spirits. For the same reason a “watcher” is appointed to stay with the body around the clock until the funeral. During this period no eating, drinking or smoking is allowed in the room with the dead. Speech, other than the reading of certain psalms and prayers for the deceased, is kept to a minimum.
Preparation of the Body
The body is washed in a carefully ordered sequence, beginning with head, First it is ritually doused in a vertical position, then covered in special burial clothes and a white shroud prepared by “pious women.” Finally it is placed in a plain wooden coffin with no ornaments. During all this straw is thrown on the floor and prayers are read from a special book called the maaver yabok .
The burial clothes should not have any pockets (the dead don’t carry anything with them) and should not have knots (which may hold the deceased back on their journey). Some broken pottery is placed in the casket to symbolize the destruction of the Temple.
These duties are usually performed by a special “holy society” of local Jews, who are specially trained for such tasks and feel honored to spare close relatives the pain of dealing with the corpse. They usually begin their work in private about a half hour after the death and carefully wash their hands three times before each task.
Warsaw funeral A funeral may be held at a home or a funeral chapel. Only greatly revered scholars or rabbi are given funerals in a synagogue. The funeral service consists of reading prayers and psalms, a eulogy and a special invocation as the casket is carried to a hearse. During a special ritual called the keri’ah , close relatives tear off their outer clothes to symbolize the intense grief they are experiencing.
The deceased is carried to the grave, usually by children or brothers of the deceased, and biblical and liturgical verses are chanted by a rabbi as the funeral procession makes its way to the graveyard. It is customary for the procession to stop along the way to allow mourners to express their grief. At the gravesite a special prayer call the Justification of the Divine Decree is read.
At the conclusion of the service the casket is lowered into the ground. A eulogy is sometimes given as the coffin is lowered into the grave. After the casket is set at the bottom of the grave, friends and family members of the deceased pay their final respects by throwing soil on the casket. Mourners then offer words of condolences to families of the deceased and a rabbi then reads “May my death be an atonement for my sins, transgressions and violations which I have sinned before you. And set my portion in the Garden of Eden, and let me merit the World to Come reserved for the righteous. Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
Immediately after the burial, the Kaddish , a service-ending Jewish prayer for the Dead, lead by the closest relative of the deceased, is read. It speaks of Jews looking forward to the resurrection. A stone is placed on the grave and mourners comfort one another. When the people who attended the funeral return home, they are expected to ritually wash their hands before they enter the house.
Jewish Mourning Period
After the funeral most of the mourning customs are designed to comfort and assist the survivors. During Shiva , the week-long period of mourning, mourners stay at home and sit on low stools, a custom which dates back to Biblical times. The only time the mourners leave home is on the Sabbath when they visit the synagogue.
There are rituals associated with sheloshim (a 30-day mourning period including Shiva). A less rigorous mourning period can last as long as eleven months after which time a head stone is laid at the cemetery in remembrance of the dead.
The sons of the deceased traditionally read the Kaddish every day for the first year after death. Candles are lit to mark the anniversary of that death each year. The dead are also commemorated with the yizkor service held on Yom Kippur and the final days of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
The Mount of Olives is hillside in Jerusalem where Jewish tombs are situated among Christian and Muslim cemeteries. Jews believe that Jews buried here will rise to heaven after the coming of the second Messiah. The tombs of many prestigious Jews are located here; for when the Messiah come they are expected to be the first to go.
Jewish Views on Heaven and the Afterlife
There are few mentions of life after death in the Hebrew Bible, and Jews have traditionally not put a lot of energy in describing what the afterlife is like. Among the few mentions in the Old Testament of what heaven is like, Abraham said, "There is a great gulf fixed; so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence."
Over time an idea that certain people resided in special “hollows” in the Underworld was formulated. The Book of Enoch, written around 200 B.C., described them as places “made that the spirits of the dead might be separated. And this division has been made for the spirits of the righteous, in which there is a bright spring of water.” Modern views of hell and heaven however are largely Christian ideas.
The traditional Jewish view of the afterlife is that most souls are purged of their sins after one year in purgatory, and then move on to paradise. Medieval Jewish writers described hell in terms that were not all that different from those expressed by Christians. Nineteenth century scholars dismissed the idea of heaven and hell but clung to beliefs in heaven. Kabbalists viewed heaven and hell as too static and developed a more dynamic system that included elements of reincarnation, which are regarded as chances for some to redeem themselves and could take place a maximum of three times.
Most Jews today place more emphasis on life on Earth than on the afterlife, and their views of the afterlife are not unified. Orthodox Jews believe in a physical resurrection in which the soul and body are united and what happens after that is not known. A prevalent view among liberals is that the soul is indestructible and that all souls will return to God, even the wicked after they have served a period in purgatory. Many modern Jews view the afterlife as a kind of spiritual journey and completely discount ideas of heaven and hell.
Sheol and Hell
Early Jews developed the concept of Sheol, an Underworld where the all dead resided in a kind of semi-existence. Genesis, 1 Kings, Psalms and Job all mention Sheol. Eccles 9:10 describes it as a place in which "you are bound, there is neither dying nor thinking neither understanding nor wisdom." When Jacob concluded his beloved son was dead, he moaned, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.”
The concept of Sheol was partly based on the Greco-Roman belief of Hades, a dreary and depressing place where people went after they died. The Pharisees, a Jewish sect that lived around the time of Jesus, embraced the Greco-Roman idea of heaven as place with distinct “levels,” or areas. In the 2nd century B.C. when the Hebrew scriptures were translated to Greek, the word Hades was used instead of Sheol.
Isaiah predicts a punishment of fire for the wicked and Daniel describes “shame and everlasting contempt” for evildoers. There is no mention of Hell in the Old Testament as a permanent place of punishment for the wicked but Hades is represented as a temporary abode for the wicked. The Book of Enoch reads: “And this has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed upon them in their lifetime. Here their spirts shall be set apart in great pain, till the great day of judgment, scourging, and torments of the accursed for ever.”
Judaism widely reject a literal interpretation of hell. In the 18th century the influential Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn reasoned that hell couldn’t exist because a punishment of eternal suffering was is incompatible with God’s mercy.
Bodily resurrection is official dogma of Judaism but it is a doctrine that many modernist Jews have trouble accepting. It was incorporated into Judaism around 600 B.C. presumably from the Zoroastrian Persians. See Zoroastrianism.
In the Old Testament, Isaiah 26:19 reads: “dead corpses shall rise awake and sing.” After the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C., the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, where the Prophet Ezekiel predicted the resurrection of the Jews and described a field of dry bones that God told to "come together bone by bone" and lived again.
Jewish concepts of resurrection are believed to have been influenced by the Greeks and Egyptians. Judaism doesn’t talk much about judgement, which is different Christianity and Islam. It talks a little about some people being blessed and some being condemned but it doesn’t really have any episodes in which people stand before God, who judges them and sends them to heaven or hell.
During the period of upheaval that occurred after Greeks desecrated the Temple in 167 B.C. the idea of a resurrection gained more credibility. According to the Book of Daniel, written 165 B.C., “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that the Pharisees, a Jewish sect, “believe that souls are endowed with immortal power and that somewhere under the earth rewards and punishment will be meted out to them, according to whether they have lived vice or virtue. The former will be condemned to perpetual imprisonment, but the others will be allowed to return to life.”
Resurrection, End of the World and the Messiah
The Jewish concept of afterlife is closely tied with the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world. A prevalent view among Jews, which dates back primarily to the Middle Ages, is that when the Messiah comes the dead will be resurrected and reunited with their bodies in a paradise-like kingdom of God near Jerusalem. Afterwards there will be a judgment in which the wicked will be destroyed forever and the faithful will exist with God forever in a bodiless state.
The concept of disaster followed by redemption help the Jews survive as a people and was the cornerstone of beliefs about a messiah.
According to Enoch 5:7-9, “But for the elect there shall be light and grace and peace, and they shall inherit the earth...And their lives shall be increased in peace. And the years of their joy shall be multiplied, in eternal gladness and peace, all the days of their life.”
See Coming of the Messiah Under Prophets and Messiahs
Prague Jewish Cemetery
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011