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Home  »  Family Goodbye


Mishpocha L’Hitraot – Family Goodbye

By David Zinner – November 25, 2013


The primary Halacha around care of the body after death is to show respect for the deceased – Kavod HaMeit. Central to the tahara ritual has always been the care and respect of the head and face of the decedent, and in particular, keeping the face covered because the dead can’t look back.  Such practices fall into the category of “minhag” – the local customs handed down from generation to generation.  Most Chevra Kadisha teams also have the minhag of not allowing the casket to be opened or disturbed once the Tahara has been completed.  This practice is complemented by the traditional Jewish practice (not connected to the Tahara) that discourages public staring at a dead body.   Such acts which accent the fact that the dead cannot return our interactions with them are considered disrespectful to the deceased.


At the same time we elevate the importance of providing comfort to the family – Nichum Aveilim.  Sometimes these twin objectives appear to be in conflict. One of those times is around a concept called viewing.   Although Jewish tradition does not include public viewings, there are times when families need and desire to say goodbye through viewing their loved one prior to burial.


The Tradition

“The casket is now covered. It is not reopened under any circumstance except for the purpose of inserting the pottery mentioned above, which some insert at the time of burial at the cemetery. Private viewing of the deceased by the family should be strongly discouraged, especially after the Tahara and closing of the casket” – Jewish Sacred Society – p 24


“Once we close the aron, it remains closed.” Chesed Shel Emet – Kelman & Fendel – 3rd Edition – page 63



A public viewing occurs at a funeral when the casket is open and a period of time is available for funeral attendees to file by and look at the body. Public viewings, both the length of time and the desire to have the deceased “look good”, are often the reasons given by funeral professionals to encourage embalming.  Jewish tradition strongly discourages public viewing.


In contrast this paper will be discussing family viewing, which occurs at a funeral home in a private setting. One or more relatives view the deceased, usually for a short period of time. A family viewing often takes place after the tahara is done and typically happens for two very different reasons.


1.       After a relative dies, some families want a final goodbye to help bring them closure. Saying goodbye to their loved one, especially for an out of town relative if they have not recently seen the deceased, can be psychologically important and provide comfort. Most funeral directors will allow this family viewing, especially if pressured by the family.

2.       Some funeral homes have a policy of requiring one family member to do a final identification. While this is usually not civil law, this identification is justified as a means to ensure there are no body mix-ups. When a funeral home asks a family member to identify the body, the family will usually acquiesce unless they consult with a knowledgeable person who will intercede for them.


Do Family Viewings Violate Established Minhag?

A quick reading of Jewish Sacred Society or Kelman-Fendel (quoted at the beginning of this paper) would lead one to believe that family viewings violate the established minhag. But the most authoritative source we have for Halacha and minhag regarding Tahara is Rabbi Mosha Epstein’s book, Tahara Manual of Practices. On page 32, number 9, there is a discussion titled “Viewing the Deceased”. The question is asked:


Question: Can the body be viewed once the tahara has been completed [emphasis added] and the casket closed?


Rabbi Mosha Epstein provides sources to help understand the tradition. Although the original question focuses on post-tahara, the sources cited do not directly address any differences in pre-tahara vs post-tahara.




Epstein Tahara Manual Text Review

Rabbi Mosha Epstein

Zinner analysis

Talmud Horayoth (13b) states that looking at the face of the deceased affects the ability to study.

It makes sense that you cannot study while you are looking at the deceased. Unclear if the implication is that it makes later study more difficult.

Talmud Moed Katan 27a explains that originally during the funeral the face of a rich person was uncovered, while the face of a poor person was covered….a decree was introduced to cover the face of the rich as well.

The tradition of covering the face was based on equality.

The Shulchan Aruch (353) reflect the events by explaining, “we cover the (faces of the) rich and poor alike”.


The Kol Bo (36) forbids uncovering the face of the deceased and looking at it, and even more so kissing or touching the deceased (Kol Bo 34-5 and Mishmeres Shalom N:51)

The context of this prohibition is not clear. Is it immediately after death, at the funeral home before tahara, or after tahara?

The Zichron Meir (397) proscribes [prohibits] opening the coffin to look at the deceased.


In addition, Rishonim consider placement in the coffin a form of burial which may not be disturbed.

 Once the body is placed in the casket, it should not be disturbed.

Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, (discussion, 1963) did not believe that looking at the face of the deceased, was either Loeg LaRosh (offensive) or halachically forbidden.

Feinstein is probably the most authoritative modern day source.

The Talmud in Moed Katan (27a) does not forbid looking at the face of a deceased.

This is Epstein’s interpretation

However, the custom of covering the face of the deceased has been instituted by many Chevros Kadisha.

This is addressing whether the tachrichim should cover the face.

But since no mystical or halachic reason appears to exist, when a family requests the right to identify the deceased, they may be allowed to do so privately and respectfully.

Epstein’s conclusion

Suggested Practice

….permit immediate family members to identify the deceased in private circumstances. However they are discouraged from kissing or even touching their departed.

Epstein’s Chevra Kadisha’s practice (probably post tahara)



What is the Current Chevra Kadisha Position Regarding Viewings?

Chevra Kadisha practice varies considerably between communities, between Ashkenazi and Sephardic,   and even between the men’s and women’s tahara teams in the same synagogue or community.

  • Some pour water, some use a mikvah, some a shower.
  • Some modify prayers to be gender sensitive, some don’t
  • Some use booties and mittens, other don’t
  • Some have a tradition to open the casket at the cemetery to put pottery on the eyes and mouth of the meit/a; most do not


In many communities Chevra Kadisha groups are not aware that family viewings do occur after the tahara is complete. The members of the Chevra Kadisha don’t know, and many don’t want to know.


Viewing Before a Tahara is Done

Some might argue that the solution to the twin problems of families desiring viewing and funeral directors desiring identification is for a viewing to be done before Tahara. But if the tahara has not yet been done, the body may be in a body bag, uncleaned and not presentable, not the best situation for a family member coming to the funeral home or for funeral directors who may be reluctant to have the family come in before the body is cleaned and dressed. There is also a timing issue – some family members may not be in town before the tahara is done.


Why is Family Viewing Problematic?

The practice of family viewing and identification after the Tahara is problematic for religious reasons.

1.       Most often, the Chevra Kadisha abdicates decisions regarding family viewing to the funeral director. The funeral director must decide whether, and in what context, the family will be allowed or required to see the deceased. The funeral director is often in an uncomfortable position of undoing what the Chevra has done (removing Israel Earth, pottery, head covering) and of needing to explain the tahara ritual to the family.

2.       The relative may need an explanation of what was done. Not only will the face be covered, but it will often have pottery over the eyes and mouth, and Israeli earth sprinkled, depending on the local minhag, on different parts of the body. Families unfamiliar with tahara that are doing a family viewing may be uncomfortable, or unhappy, with what they see. But, there is no one from the Chevra Kadisha to explain tahara or to answer questions about the tachrichim. 

3.       There is no prescribed practice or ritual for the relative(s) to follow. There is no Jewish context or content. Many families will need and appreciate some structure for their goodbye to be meaningful.


Will a new Jewish Ritual Solve the Problems Associated With Family Viewing?

A new ritual would need to work at four levels – the 4 “c’s”.

  • To place control of family viewing into the Chevra Kadisha realm.
  • To move the family viewing into a Jewish context.
  • To present Jewish content including an explanation of tahara and tachrichim.
  • To afford an opportunity to provide comfort to the family.


What Would Happen in a New Ritual?

Mishpocha L’Hitraot means Family Goodbye. Using L’Hitarot for goodbye instead of Shalom adds a different layer of meaning. L’Hitarot is used when you take leave of someone you plan to see or meet again and may resonate whether you see your relative in your dreams, remember them for their good deeds, or believe you will see them in the afterlife.


A representative of the tahara team or congregation, or the rabbi, conducts the Mishpocha L’Hitraot (Family Goodbye) ritual. The representative meets with the family member(s) at the funeral home and explains the work of the Chevra Kadisha, that a tahara was done and the meit/a is dressed in tachrichim. The representative explains the Mishpocha L’Hitraot ritual and discusses how the three prayers will be read and 10 actions performed (see below). The representative then assists in the performance of the ritual.


Families would need to know that the Mishpocha L’Hitraot ritual would only be done once, and that there is a limit to the number of relatives that could participate. Some Chevra Kadisha will make it mandatory to conduct a Mishpocha L’Hitraot ritual when there is to be a family viewing. Others will make it optional.


How Will Creating a Family Goodbye Ritual Address the Stated Problems?

Instead of leaving the content and context to the Funeral Director, representatives of the congregation or the Chevra Kadisha will coordinate a religious ritual for the Final Goodbye. This removes pressure on the funeral director that needs a final identification, and puts responsibility for a goodbye ritual back into the religious arena. Tahara team members or a synagogue representative will explain tahara and answer questions about the tachrichim, and provide comfort to the family. 


Will Creating a Family Goodbye Ritual Have Other Benefits?

1.       Some family members may want to participate in preparing the body after death. But most Chevra Kadisha groups do not allow family members to watch. Only a few allow a family member to participate in a tahara. Helping the tahara team is difficult because family members are often unfamiliar with the Tahara ritual. They may have lots of questions that are inappropriate during the tahara. The tahara team may feel uncomfortable with an “outsider” participating. Some Chevra Kadisha groups will let one relative come into the room at the end to help tie last knots or place pottery on the eyes. A Family Goodbye is alternate way for the family to be involved and help bring closure.

2.       The “secret society” barriers to entry into the Chevra Kadisha have been knocked down in many communities. Yet the anonymity tradition for Tahara team members continues to maintain a barrier of a different kind, even though it is based on respect for both the family and the chevra members. If we truly believe that tahara is an integral part of the continuum of care at the end of life, and that communication and compassion are important in the healing process, then we should develop ways for the tahara team members to interact with the family in a way that the respect shown by anonymity of those who performed the Tahara is still provided.  It is distressing when we hear that those doing the tahara know nothing about the meit/a, or are unaware of what will happen next at the funeral, burial and shiva. We know that some tahara team members will go out of their way to do shmira or lead shiva services after a tahara because they feel the need for a connection to the family, or to somehow let the family know that everything was OK in the tahara. The Family Goodbye ritual creates an opportunity for interaction between a member of the tahara team and the family without violating the confidentiality of the tahara process.

3.       One of the traditional aspects of shmira was to physically protect the body. For those communities able to provide continuous shmira, we should evolve a way to take responsibility for “chain of custody”. This would require placing an ID tag on the wrist of the deceased at the hospital, nursing home, or place where they died. The shmira team would provide a log in which each shomer would physically check the meit/a id tag and note the date, time and their name. The Family Goodbye date and time would also be entered into the log. The family would receive a copy of the log after the funeral, enabling them to thank the shmira volunteers if they wish.   These practices would also discourage errors like the following:

“…the state [of Massachusetts Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers] alleges Stanetsky [Jewish Memorial Chapel] staff placed [Evelyn] Zippin in a grave at Chevra Kadsha Cemetery in Woburn that was intended for another elderly woman named Evelyn who died the same day. Once the error was realized, it’s alleged that Zippin was exhumed and the two bodies switched without their families ever being told or the necessary permits pulled.”                             Boston Herald – Nov 25, 2010

“…Stanetsky Memorial Chapels entered into a Consent Agreement whereby the funeral home agreed to pay an $18,000 fine. The funeral home also agreed to a probation period of 12 months. As part of the probation, the funeral home is required to provide the Board with written verification, signed by two licensed/certified funeral directors, of the identity of every decedent that comes into the care of the funeral home. The $18,000 fine is the largest fine in the history of the Board. The Consent Agreement also marks the first time that probation has been imposed on a funeral establishment [by the Massachusetts Board].”                                                 Massachusetts Board – December 21, 2011

Mishpocha L’Hitraot – Family Goodbye

Some Chevra Kadisha groups have indicated that they want to modify their Tahara protocol to allow for a Family Goodbye. This modification is designed to respond to those requests while maintaining as much as possible the original Tahara prayers, actions, and kavanah, and providing Jewish content and context for a Family Goodbye.

Here is a model of how this new ritual might unfold:  A member of the Tahara team, the rabbi, or a synagogue volunteer meets with the family member(s) at the funeral home, offer condolences, explaining the tahara ritual including the tachrichim.  They would then review the Mishpocha L’Hitraot ritual:


1.       Opening Prayer

2.       Remove the loose lid from the aron

3.       Remove the face covering from the meit/a

4.       Give the family a few minutes to say goodbye (usually just a few minutes – if they need additional time, suggest staying on for Shmira after the Mishpocha L’Hitraot)

5.       Place pottery on the eyes and mouth

6.       Sprinkle Israeli earth according to the Chevra Kadisha minhag

a.       Kelman v3 page 63

b.      Kelman v2 page 38

7.       Recite v’chiper admato

8.       Place face covering explaining that the meit/a no longer looking outward, at the physical world

9.       Complete wrapping the sovev around the meit/a

10.   Close the aron

11.   Put in the pegs

a.       Kelman v3 – Page 72 action 3 –

b.      Kelman v2 – Page 39 – 12

12.   Recite psalm 91:10-12

a.       Kelman v3 – Page 73

b.      Kelman v2 – Page 47

13.   Light the candle


Instructions for the Chevra Kadisha

Local minhag varies, but chevra teams could perform all of the normal Tahara procedures except the placement of sherbloch (pottery shards on the eyes and mouth), and the sprinkling of Israeli earth onto the eyes and mouth.  This Tahara procedural variation would only be performed when the team knows ahead of time that a Family Goodbye ritual is to happen, and that these items would be placed onto the face of the deceased appropriately, the head covering replaced properly, the sovev wrapped nicely, and that the Tahara process would be completed by a known member of the chevra.


Local Chevra Kadisha member trainings should include specific teaching about this ritual, how it affects the performance of Tahara, and how to perform the Family Goodbye ritual itself.  Funeral home representatives should also be trained in this aspect of working with chevra members and families under these circumstances.


If known before the Tahara, the Tahara team may do the Tahara with the following modifications.

1.       If using the Kelman manual 3rd edition, p 61, omit action 5 and the prayer at the top of page 6. Modify action 6b by not wrapping the sovev over the head. On page 72, action 3, loosely place the aron lid on the casket – do not push in the pegs.

2.       If using the Kelman manual 2nd edition, p38, omit 5 and 6. Modify 8 by not wrapping the sovev over the head. On page 39, modify 12 and 13, loosely place the aron lid on the casket – do not push in the pegs.


More on Halacha and Minhag

What is halacha?

Halakhah comes from three sources: from the Torah, from laws instituted by the rabbis and from long-standing customs. Halakhah from any of these sources can be referred to as a mitzvah (commandment; plural: mitzvot). The word “mitzvah” is also commonly used in a casual way to refer to any good deed. Because of this imprecise usage, sophisticated halakhic discussions are careful to identify mitzvot as being mitzvot d’oraita (an Aramaic word meaning “from the Torah”) or mitzvot d’rabbanan (Aramaic for “from the rabbis”). A mitzvah that arises from custom is referred to as a minhag. Mitzvot from all three of these sources are binding, though there are differences in the way they are applied…

Mitzvot d’rabbanan are commonly divided into three categories: gezeirah, takkanah and minhag.



What is minhag?

A minhag is a custom that developed for worthy religious reasons and has continued long enough to become a binding religious practice…. The word “minhag” is also used in a looser sense, to indicate a community or an individual’s customary way of doing some religious thing.



“…the word minhag in Jewish law reflects its Biblical Hebrew origins as “the (manner of) driving (a chariot)”. Whereas Halakha (law), from the word for walking-path, means the path or road set for the journey, minhag (custom), from the word for driving, means the manner people have developed themselves to travel down that path more quickly.”


When does minhag, long standing custom, become halacha?  Prevailing practice varies among communities, as well as among movements. The best codification that we have is the Tahara Manual of Practices by Rabbi Mosha Epstein.


Can minhag be changed?

Jewish law provides for a number of mechanisms to change or remove a custom when it is held to be mistaken or illogical. (See Tosafot on Talmud Pesachim 51a; Maimonides,Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah; Be’er Heitev, Orach Chaim 182 in Hilchot Birkat Ha’mazon, Orach Chaim 653 in Hilchot Lulav, Orach Chaim 551:4 in Hilchot Tisha B’av.) Orthodox rabbi and historian of Jewish law Menachem Elon writes:

Custom, because of its spontaneous and undirected nature, sometimes calls for a measure of supervision and control. At times a custom may be founded on error, or develop unreasonably or illogically in a certain direction, or may even be in conflict with substantive and fundamental principles of Jewish law in a manner leaving no room for its integration into the system. From time to time the halakhic scholars exercised such control in order to contain or discredit entirely a particular custom. (“The Principles of Jewish Law”, single volume English edition)

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minhag