To our congregants and families,
Our deepest condolences if you are reading this page because you recently experienced the death of a loved one or perhaps have a loved one dealing with a terminal illness. Please call us as soon as possible, so we can be of assistance and meet your needs in the best way possible. Please know that I look forward to speaking with you as soon as possible. However, experience has taught that there are some questions that need an answer quickly. I hope that this letter will help guide you in your decisions regarding funeral arrangements that will honor your loved one and bring comfort to you during the coming days and weeks.
There are two basic principles around which all decisions are made:
ניחום אבילים nichum avelim, Comfort for the Mourners and כבוד המתkavod ha-met, Honor for the Deceased.
Judaism teaches us that the body, though now separate from the soul, is holy. It should not be disturbed unneccessarily in preparation for burial. I encourage taharah, traditional cleansing of the body in preparation for burial. Embalming violates Jewish law and custom, treats the body very roughly and so is strongly discouraged. It is also not required by state law or by the cemetery. Cremation is also strongly discouraged. (Speak to the rabbis if prior arrangement had been made for cremation.)
Simplicity in Burial
Jews acknowledge and accept the judgment that death comes to all who are mortal. Because we all die, Jews have traditionally resisted any show of ostentation. In death, we are all equal. I strongly recommend a “kosher” casket. This is a casket is made without metal. In this way, it will return to the earth in a natural manner. The wood caskets available are dignified while also being restrained and without too much ornamentation.
I recommend simple clothing for the body. A traditional shroud is available if you ask. Clothes worn in this world are not necessary for burial though not forbidden.
Flowers are discouraged. In lieu of flowers, gifts to tzedakah in memory of the deceased are encouraged. With regard to any other decision, simplicity should be your guide.
Viewing of the Body
Viewing of the body is in no way a Jewish custom. It is the actions of a man or woman that distinguish the person, not their physical form. Our faith teaches that to gaze upon a body without the soul is to take advantage of that person. Public viewing of the body is not permitted at any time.
Private viewing, aside from identification requirements, is a sensitive issue. Judaism discourages it but please talk to me for further discussion. You may want to gather photographs or videos at the house of mourning so that people may remember your loved one as he or she lived. Of course, you may have more questions. The above information is there for you as you make some of the earliest arrangements. Your funeral director has my confidence and can answer many questions. I hope to be speaking with you soon so that I can be of service as you fulfill the sacred obligation of caring for your loved one.
המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
Hamakom y’nachem etchem sha’ar avlei Zion v’Yerushalayim. May God offer comfort to you as God has done for all the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.
Rabbi Douglas Kohn