Kavod v'Nichum and Gamliel Institute provide resources, education, and training along the Jewish end-of-life continuum: from visiting the sick and pre-planning, to care for the body after death, to providing comfort to the mourners.
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What to Do Immediately

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).

Primary mourners (son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, and spouse) also perform kri’ah (“tearing” of a piece of clothing), though it is common practice today for this to be done instead immediately before the funeral or 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.
  • Cover the mirrors in the room where the deceased is lying (if the death takes place at home).

Before the body is picked up (usually by the funeral home), 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 shmirah (“guarding” or accompanying of the body) immediately.

For more information click the Jewish Death Practices tab above.

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Whom to Call

If you have made pre-need arrangements, you will likely have a handy list of phone numbers for final arrangements. [See the Planning Ahead for Death page for more details.]

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 a local funeral home that works with the Jewish community.
  • If a traditional burial is desired, contact (or have the rabbi or funeral home contact) the appropriate synagogue or community Chevrah Kadisha, the sacred burial team who prepares the body for burial.
  • 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.

For more information or to get immediate guidance, call us at 410-733-3700.

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The Role of the Rabbi or Synagogue

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 Chevrah 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.

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Changes in the Home:

(from Chabad.org with minor edits)

Candles in the House of Mourning

The house of mourning must be prepared with candles for the return of the mourners from the cemetery. Candles, in memory of the deceased, should be kindled and kept burning for the entire seven-day period of shiva. They are kindled upon returning from the cemetery. (The shiva candles are usually provided by the funeral director.)

To the Jew, the candle signifies a special event, some notable occasion in life. There is candlelight on Sabbath, on major holidays, customarily at the Brit, the Pidyon HaBen, under the wedding canopy, and often at occasions of simchah shel mitzvah-meals celebrating the successful conclusion of a commandment.

During shiva, candlelight is the symbol of the human being. The wick and the flame symbolize body and soul, and the bond between them. The flame is the soul that strives ever upward, and brings light into darkness. Jewish mysticism has suggested profound and insightful analogies of the flame and the soul of the deceased in its comments on the shiva candle, yahrzeit lamp and yizkor candle.

Because of this deep significance of the flame, the shiva candle, ideally, should not be an electric fixture, but one of wick and flame, either of olive oil or paraffin. If these are unavailable, an electric light should be used. Also, if there is any danger of fire, the electric light, of course, should be used.

Where the candle should be kindled is a matter of opinion in the sources. It is most proper that it be lit in the home of the deceased, where he or she lived and died. This should obtain regardless of where the death occurred. If it is not feasible to observe the shiva at the residence of the deceased, it should be kindled wherever the mourners are sitting shiva.

The candle should be kindled immediately upon returning from the cemetery, or upon hearing of the death within the seven days. The candle is left burning for the duration of the shiva, even throughout the Sabbath at which time demonstrative mourning is not observed. Also, on chol hamoed of Succot and Passover the candle is lit immediately, even though shiva begins after the holiday is over. In such a case, the candles should remain burning through the holiday and until the end of the shiva. It is preferable on those days, however, to place the candles in a room other than the dining room so as to make the symbol of grief less prominent on the holiday which is a joyous occasion for the entire Jewish people.
One candle is sufficient for the household. There should be one lit also wherever the mourners observe the shiva.

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Covering the Mirrors

It has been a time-honored tradition to cover the mirrors in the shiva home from the moment of death to the end of shiva. While the custom is of uncertain origin, its practice is appropriate to the pattern of aveilut (the mourning period following burial).

A variety of reasons have been advanced for the custom of covering the mirrors:

  1. Judaism has always taught that we were created in the image of God and that we derive, from that resemblance, our dignity and our value. It has supplemented this concept with the idea that the death of one of God’s creatures diminishes the very image of the Creator Himself. Man’s demise represents a disruption of the relationship between the living man and the living God. The dignity of man is the reflection of his Creator and, therefore, the image of the Creator Himself shrinks with the death of His creatures. At the time of the destruction of the image of God, represented by man, the mirror — which serves to reflect man’s “image” — ought not be used.
  2. When death strikes, the mourner should contemplate the relationship between God and man, Creator and creature. When, instead, the bereaved dwells vainly on self-adoration (through the use of his mirror) and continues to be concerned with his own image and his own creatureliness, he thereby brings to almost comic proportions the austere moment of tragedy.
  3. It should be recognized that the mirror occupies an unusual place in the household. It is the object which, more than any other, serves to enhance the attractiveness of man and wife for each other. The silvered glass reflects the external appeal of each of the mates.Judaism has taken great care to promote a relationship of kindness, concern, courtesy, and even physical desire between a man and his wife. Nevertheless, with the death of a child or parent or sibling, this intimate relationship must be suspended. One commentator thus states that the ancient custom observed during shiva, of kfi’at hamitah, the overturning of the bed or couch, served as a means of discouraging marital relations. When the cloud of death settles on a household, the mirror, the happy symbol of secure and intimate family living, must be covered, and the mourner must concentrate on the painful loss.
  4. It is obvious that the individual, if he were isolated from society, would have little need of the precious reflecting glass. The mirror is the means of achieving social acceptance by enhancing the appearance. The spirit of Jewish mourning, however, is the spirit of loneliness, the mourner dwelling silently, and in solitude, on his personal loss. Social etiquette and appearance become terribly insignificant. The covering of the mirror symbolizes the sense of withdrawal in avelut.
  5. The fifth reason is a very practical one: Worship services are customarily held in the home of the bereaved, as will be noted below. Jewish law clearly states that one may not worship an image or stand directly in front of one, whether it be a picture, or a reflected image in a mirror. Thus, mirrors must be covered in this temporary House of Worship.

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Additional House of Mourning Preparations

Several other matters regarding the house of mourning should be noted:

  • Arrange with the funeral director for shiva benches or stools for all the mourners, even for those who are too ill to sit on them constantly throughout the shiva. The mourners will also require slippers that are not made of leather.
  • Ask the rabbi (or sexton or lay official) of the synagogue for a sufficient number of men to constitute a minyan, and for prayer-books for all present, men and women, and skullcaps for the men.
  • Also arrange for chairs for those who will visit during shiva.

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Friends and Family

Friends and family who are not primary mourners can support those mourners in a number of ways. First and foremost is by just being there, silently, lovingly present. In addition, the following two topics are of interest here, namely, the meal of condolence (se’udat havra’ah), and how one should greet and interact with mourners during this sensitive time.
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The Meal of Condolence

The meal of condolence, the first full meal that the mourners eat upon returning from the interment, is traditionally provided by the neighbors of the bereaved. So important was this basic courtesy considered that some religious thinkers maintain that it was biblically ordained. Indeed, the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud admonished neighbors who caused the bereaved to eat of his own prepared meal. They even pronounced a curse upon them for displaying such callousness and indifference to the plight of their fellow men.

This beautiful custom, which may appear strange to some American Jews, possesses profound psychological insights. One astute medieval rabbi, obviously of the pre-Freudian era, observed that the mourner harbors a strong death wish at the moment he returns home to the familiar surroundings now bereft of warmth and life. His wish is to join his beloved. In this frame of mind he would tend to deprive himself of food in order to achieve a symbolic death. Indeed, a comment frequently heard is, “Who can eat when my husband lies dead in the cold, friendless earth?”

Another aspect of the meal of condolence is that it is the second formal expression of consolation. The first is the parallel rows of friends through which the bereaved walk as they depart from the gravesite. That is a silent tribute, with only a Hebrew formula of condolence, but it is eloquent testimony that we share the pangs of our neighbor’s anguish. This second stage of condolence takes us one step closer to the mourner in his state of misery; we move from the role of spectator to participant, from sentiment to service. We bring the mourner the sustenance of life, figuratively and literally, the “bread” of his existence. That is why this meal of condolence is mandatory upon the neighbors, and not the mourners.

This expression of consolation should be, as is the first one, a silent one. The meal should not be an occasion for socializing or for idle chatter. This is discouraged during the period of mourning and, in any case, is in very poor taste.

The third formal occasion of consolation, the shiva visitation, is the time that is ripe for the beginning of the mourner’s verbalization of his feeling of loss. Here, too, the rabbis urge the visitors to sit in silence until the bereaved himself desires to speak. Even then, the rabbis advise visitors to speak only on the subject of the death in the family. This theme will be treated below.

  1. Minimally, it should include bread or rolls–the staff of life. It should also include hardboiled eggs, symbolic of the cyclical or continuous nature of life. Some explain that the egg is the only food that hardens the longer it is cooked, and man must learn to steel himself when death occurs. The meal of condolence may also include cooked vegetables or lentils, and a beverage such as coffee or tea. Some custom has it that wine should also be served. It is obvious that this occasion of drinking should not induce lightheartedness or a surfeit of conviviality.
  2. The meal of condolence must be the very first meal eaten on the day of interment. This commandment refers only to the first meal and not to the second meal of the day nor, if the mourners choose to fast, to the meal taken after dark or the next day. Of course, if neighbors were unwittingly delayed, or ignorant of the custom, the meal should be accepted most graciously.
  3. If interment took place at night, the time for the first meal is considered to be all night or any time during the next day.
  4. Who must prepare the meal? Ideally, as was noted, the neighbors should do so. If they do not, the relatives or the son or daughter of the mourner may perform this mitzvah. If that is not possible, the mourners may prepare it for one another. If no one is available to perform this commandment, the mourner should prepare his own meal. No mourner is expected to fast. If the meal of condolence is not ready when the mourners have returned from the funeral, they may partake of light refreshments of their own, such as coffee and cake, providing they do not eat bread or cooked food or sit down to a table as at a formal meal.
  5. When is the meal of condolence not served? The meal of condolence is not served at a time when there is no formal, public observance of mourning, such as on Sabbath or the major festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot), or on the late afternoons preceding these days. However, the meal should be served on days of Rosh Chodesh, Hanukkah, Purim, and chol hamoed.

If a second death occurs during shiva, another meal of condolence must be served.

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Greeting Mourners

With the shocking disruption of normal life caused by a death in the family, the standard forms of social intercourse, its niceties and graces and minutiae of etiquette, are without significance. The mourning heart has no patience for these formalities. Tradition, thus, scorns all types of greeting during shiva.
The sages, who consistently demand that one greet all men graciously and courteously, regard greetings as out of place when spoken by, or to, the mourner. It is absurd to say to a man deep in anguish over someone he loved. “Hello. How are you feeling today?” This is not only a question that cannot be answered, it indicates a lack of compassion and understanding. The shalom aleichems and the hellos are hollow and purposeless, even offensive, to the despairing heart. Certainly, as Maimonides, the twelfth-century sage, taught, we must strongly discourage the misplaced small talk and lightheartedness of some mindless visitors. The rejection of greetings at this time, far from betraying a lack of cordiality, issues from a profound insight into man’s nature and a deep compassion for his predicament. This law, as so many other laws of bereavement, originated with Ezekiel. G-d tells Ezekiel (24:17): “Sigh in silence.” Indeed, how can one mourn more eloquently than by “sighing in silence”?
The sages offer a second reason for avoiding the standard greeting of “shalom.” Shalom is one of the names of G-d, and greeting in the name of G-d at a time when G-d has taken a close relative could conceivably be, in the spirit of the mourner, an intimation of scoffing and an invitation to question G-d’s justice, at a time when he is required to proclaim G-d’s justice, as in the tzidduk hadin prayer.
Traditionally, therefore, Jews do not extend greetings to the mourner. The visitor enters the door, usually left slightly ajar to avoid the first meeting and greeting, and sits down, without fuss and bother, to share the grief of his neighbor. Here are some guidelines to help:
1. During shiva, the mourner should not extend greetings to others and others, naturally, should not bid him shalom.
2. When greetings are extended by visitors out of ignorance, the mourner, during the first three days, may not respond to the greeting. He should indicate, graciously, that he is a mourner and is not permitted to do so. After the three days, he may respond to the greeting out of courtesy, but should do so in an undertone, to indicate respect to both the person and the tradition.
3. After shiva he may initiate the greeting and may respond to it. Customarily, however, the mourner is not greeted with shalom for the full year of mourning in the case of a parent’s death, and for the 30 days after the death of other relatives.
4. If a large contingent of people visits as a group, such as, for example, representatives of an organization, he may bid them farewell. Special respect must be accorded to a large number of people.
5. On the Sabbath, the mourner may wish others Shabbat shalom, and they may respond. As to whether others may initiate greetings, there is conflicting opinion, and the mourner should follow the practice of his own community.
6. May visitors greet each other in the house of mourning? It is considered in poor taste even to utilize the word shalom in the house of mourning, especially since one must then differentiate between the greeting spoken to the bereaved and that spoken to the comforters.
7. Other forms of greeting to the mourner (not using the word shalom), such as “good evening,” etc. should also be avoided. Merely sitting beside the mourner is sufficient. If one desires to approach the mourner directly, the mention of his name alone is indicative of both courtesy and the compassion for his bereavement. Visitors may greet each other without utilizing the word shalom.
8. The proper way to bid farewell is to use the Hebrew phrase, HaMakom yenachem (otecha for one male, otach for one female, etchem for many mourners, etchen for more than one female mourner) b’toch she’ar aveilei Tziyon vi’yerushalayim. One may use the translation, as well: “May G-d comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Indeed, it is, after all, G-d alone who can provide the only valid, lasting comfort at this moment of anguish. G-d, in this phrase, is referred to as HaMakom, which ordinarily means “the Place.” It implies that the omnipresent G-d, who is everyplace at every time, was present at birth and is now present in the house of mourning — knows the grief that is suffered by the mourners. He is the G-d who will grant you comfort.
9. There is no reason why the visitors should not wish the mourner well: that he be blessed with good health and strength, that in the long future he be shielded from great sorrow, and that he be granted long life, or other appropriate blessings. By the same token, the mourner may extend these good wishes, or even mazal tov for some happy occasion, to those who visit. It is psychologically and spiritually valuable for the mourner to demonstrate concern for others-for their sorry plight or their good fortune, although he is himself steeped in the despair of his own difficulties.
10. To bring gifts of material things to the mourner is not only in poor taste, but in violation of the traditional custom. The avoidance of sending gifts is in the nature of avoiding greetings. Sending gifts expresses only the superficial joys of friendship at a time of profound personal disorientation. Traditionally, the meal of condolence was the proper gift of consolation. While, obviously, not all visitors can provide this present, a gift to a charity in honor of the deceased is, instead, correct procedure. Thoughtful visitors will follow this course.

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