Jewish Death and Funeral Rituals
What does Judaism teach about death?
While the preservation of life in Judaism is of paramount importance, taking precedence over nearly all other priorities and observances, death is not therefore abhorred or devalued. Instead, death is seen as a part of life and a part of God's plan. The extensive mourning rituals in Judaism do not indicate a rejection or protest of death, but demonstrate the great value Judaism places on life in general and the life of each individual person.
Treatment of the Body
Upon the death of a Jew, the eyes are closed, the body is covered and laid on the floor, and candles are lit next to it. The body is never left alone as a sign of respect. Those who stay with the body are called shomerim (guards). Eating, drinking, or performing mitzvot are prohibited near the body, as such actions would mock the person who is no longer able to do such things.
In Jewish law, being in the presence of a dead body causes ritual uncleanness. Thus a kohein (member of the priestly family) may not be in the presence of a corpse, and those who have been must wash their hands before entering a home, whether or not they actually touched the body.
Most Jewish communities have a special group of volunteers, the "holy society" (chevra kaddisha) whose job is to care for the dead. This work holds great merit since those they serve can never repay them. They are responsible for washing the body and preparing for burial in accordance with Jewish custom. (For more information on the chevra kaddisha, see this PBS article.)
Dead bodies may not be cremated, and burial takes place as soon as possible after death. Embalming and the removal of organs and fluids is prohibited, although there are allowances for autopsies and organ donation. The former can be done if it would save a life or if local law requires it; the latter may be done since the organ's eventual burial will fulfill the requirement to bury the entire body.
Open caskets are forbidden by Jewish law, as it would be disrespectful to allow any enemies of the dead to view them in their helpless state. Bodies are buried in a simple linen shroud, so that the poor will not receive less honor than the rich. The body is also wrapped in a tallit.
Coffins are not required, and are not used in Israel. If they are used, holes must be drilled into them to allow contact with the earth. A handful of earth from Israel is thrown in the casket with the body by a family member. These practices are intended to put the body in the closest contact with the earth as possible, and reflect the belief that the dead will rise in Israel in the messianic age.
Jewish law requires that tombstones be erected on all graves, so the dead will be remembered and the grave will not be desecrated. In some communities it is customary to place stones on the grave when visiting, as was done in the film Schindler's List. The origins of this tradition are not entirely clear, and it is not universally practiced.
Jewish tombstones display the sort of information found on most tombstones: the name of the deceased, date of death, and a short benediction. This information is normally written in Hebrew, and certain symbols indicating the deceased is Jewish may also be present, such as a menorah, star of David, torah scroll, lion, or the tablets of the Ten Commandments.