When death is imminent, the rabbi or other clergy should be notified. They will be available to give moral support to the family and to the dying person by praying with them and offering practical counsel and assistance.
You may also wish to prepare a list of persons to be notified after death occurs. You may wish to ask a friend or non-immediate family member to handle this notification task.
A person in his or her final moments of life is known as a gosecs, which means “dying”, or “moribund.” This word is derived from the sound heard coming from the throat as the chest cavity narrows. The Talmud teaches that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) stands at the head of the goses. This special status means that the dying individual should be treated as a living person in all respects and not as an object or as one to be avoided. Everything possible to save a person’s life is pursued even if it means transgressing Shabbat or aYom Tov. In the same vein, we do not take any action that would hasten a person’s death.
The presence of loved ones brings necessary and important psychological comfort to the goses, as well as meeting the emotional needs of those who love him/her. This final demonstration of love and concern provides all involved the assurance that they did all they could up to the very end. It also allows one to deal with grief directly and without the sense of guilt of not having done enough for the one who died.
If at all possible, the one who is dying should not be left alone. Try to limit conversations to those that meet the needs of the dying person. One should leave the room to eat, drink, or discuss extraneous matters with another visitor. Psalms and prayers may be recited to ease the loved-one’s passing. Psalms 23, 91, 103, 121,130 and 139 are particularly appropriate. Singing, telling stories, background music may all be comforting.
The dying person traditionally recites the Vidui, a confessional prayer. The prayer includes regret for all sins committed during one’s lifetime and is recognition of the fact that one is passing from this world to the next. Care should be taken that this does not distress the dying person. It should be explained that saying the Vidui does not mean that death is imminent. In fact, it may happen that a person says the Vidui and then recovers. The Vidui, followed by the recitation of the Sh’ma, in the last moments before death, help to affirm one’s faith in God precisely when it is most challenged. If the dying person is unable to recite this confessional, a person in attendance may recite the Vidui on that person’s behalf.
Death at home can be a blessing for the deceased, and in many ways, a comfort for family and friends. But the work of caregiving at home can also be very stressful. This stress can be mitigated somewhat if hospice is involved during the last weeks (or months) of life. (Although the term “hospice” often refers to a physical location where end-of-life care is offered, hospice services are available in the home in many communities.) Hospice services can include management of medical care as well as emotional counseling for the dying and the family.
When death occurs in a home, the same procedures as below are applicable. Take the time you need to say goodbye. Once you are ready, arrange to have the body transported to the funeral home. (You may wish to have clergy make arrangements for removal of the body so the family does not have to.)
After the body is removed, the family living in the same home where the death occurred may wish to light a shiva candle (week-long burnng candle; see traditional jewish mourning practices) and have a friend clean up the room where the deceased died, restoring it to its normal appearance as much as possible. Mirrors should be covered and remain so through the end of shiva.
What to Do
It is traditional for all those present to recite Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet (Praised is the True Judge) immediately upon death (or, if not present, upon learning of the death).
Mourners [see Who Is a Mourner?] also perform kri’a (“tearing” of a piece of clothing), though this may be done before the funeral or the burial.
In addition, any of those present may assist with these steps:
* Close the eyes and mouth of the deceased and straighten the limbs.
* Cover the deceased with a sheet.
* Open the windows in the room where the deceased is lying. (If weather is an issue, open a window, then close it as needed.)
* Place a lighted candle near the head of the deceased (not done on Shabbat; on Yom Tov, kindle from a pre-existing flame).
* Cover the mirrors in the room where the deceased is lying. (If at home, cover all mirrors in the home.)
Before the body is picked up (usually by the funeral home) [see Whom to Call below], take time to say goodbye to the deceased, as much time as you need. Don’t let yourself be rushed.
The deceased should not be left unattended, so right after death, one begins sh’mira (“watching” of the body). See About Chevra Kadisha for more information about sh’mira and tahara (“purification” of the body, or, more generally, traditional preparation of the body for burial).
If the deceased died in a hospital or other medical setting, medical personnel may remove tubes, needles, etc.
If you have made pre-need arrangements, you will likely have a handy list of phone numbers for final arrangements. [See Planning Ahead for Death.]
In any case, here is a simple list of steps to be taken:
* If the family is affiliated with a synagogue, contact the rabbi. Ask if there is a preferred way to contact the funeral home.
* If the family is unaffiliated, contact the funeral home.
* If a traditional burial is desired, contact (or have the rabbi contact) the Chevra Kadisha [see About Chevra Kadisha], the sacred burial team who prepares the body for burial. (This preparation task is often done by the funeral home, or they make contact a community or synagogue-affiliated Chevra Kadisha.)
* Contact the important family members of the deceased to inform them of the death. As appropriate, let them know that arrangements are still being determined and that you will keep them informed.
The funeral home will likely make arrangements for the body of the deceased to be picked up.
Note: If this is not a natural death (such as a violent death), or if the deceased is an organ or tissue donor, the pattern may differ in some respects.
What if we don’t have burial plots?
Usually consultation with clergy can facilitate purchase of an appropriate cemetery plot. This can be taken care of while making the other burial arrangements.
The rabbi or synagogue representative can help in many ways. They know whom to contact to take care of what needs attention, such as contacting the funeral home that is most appropriate; contacting the Chevra Kadisha (team who prepares the body for burial); notifying the caring committee of the community to help the family; assisting with arrangements for burial and the funeral service and transportation of the body as needed; providing shiva candles; making shiva minyan arrangements; and other things that help the family at this vulnerable time. The rabbi can also help counsel the family in a number of ways, including but not limited to helping them understand Jewish mourning practices, providing emotional support and guidance, and offering spiritual leadership.