Wills and Advance Directives
A will contains your wishes regarding the disposition of your material and financial estate, including who should administer your estate. Although a will can be prepared without a lawyer, you may wish to consult one, especially if your assets are substantial or the arrangements you wish to make are complicated.
An advance directive (also known as a “durable power of attorney for health care”) contains your wishes regarding end-of-life or emergency medical care. For instance, you may want to make a decision in advance as to whether “extraordinary measures” should be taken if you are found unconscious. These are complex and often disturbing issues to contemplate, and you may wish to consult a professional (medical, legal, or pastoral) for assistance in reaching decisions.
Organ Donation Arrangements
It’s important to plan ahead and make your wishes known if you wish to donate your organs. All branches of Judaism allow organ donation, though procedures may vary.
Pre-Need Funeral Arrangements
Some of the arrangements involved in funeral planning can be done ahead of time, including:
- choosing a cemetery and purchasing a cemetery plot (see Choosing a Cemetery)
- choosing a funeral home (see Funeral Home Considerations)
Once these arrangements are done, it’s useful to create a list of contact people and phone numbers, including the rabbi and funeral director, to simplify things when a death occurs.
If you are affiliated with a synagogue, the rabbi or administrator may be able to assist you with these arrangements, particularly if the synagogue has an associated cemetery.
What if I’m not Affiliated?
Unaffiliated Jews deserve the same dignity and respect in life as all other Jews. In death, it is no different. The only issue is whom should you contact since you don’t belong to a synagogue or community. Many funeral homes maintain a list of rabbis who can help the family during this vulnerable time to make appropriate decisions, contact the right funeral home, and make burial arrangements. If you cannot find a rabbi, contact a local synagogue. They usually can find an appropriate rabbi for you.
Cemeteries and Burial Sites
In choosing a cemetery and burial site, you may want to consider these issues:
- location of the cemetery, especially if visiting the grave will be important to you
- religious affiliation of the cemetery (e.g., Orthodox, Reform, trans-denominational, etc.)
- availability of plots for yourself and other family members
Issues around Status in Cemeteries
Each cemetery may have its own rules about who can be buried there. For instance, some allow burial of non-Jewish spouses and others do not. Some cemeteries have an area reserved for Orthodox families and another area reserved for non-observant Jews. Don’t be offended when cemetery personnel ask how observant the deceased was. They just need to know where to select the burial plot.
What to Expect from Funeral Homes
Funeral home personnel are usually very well trained in how to help families during the time between death and burial. Many funeral homes know how to work with Jewish families and are extremely supportive and well prepared to perform Jewish death practices.
However, funeral homes are in business to make money. So it is important to understand that they are working hard to give us good service for a reason. In addition, some funeral home personnel, even in funeral homes that frequently serve the Jewish community, may not fully understand Jewish death practices. Hence it is important to be clear in communicating with the funeral home staff regarding what is desired for a deceased Jew. It helps if family members have communicated with each other so they can present a description of their needs to the funeral home. If problems arise between you and the funeral home personnel, you can usually get a rabbi to intercede on your behalf.
Caskets and Other Details
Traditional Jewish burial includes a simple wooden casket, no cremation, no embalming, preparation of the body by the Chevrah Kadisha rather than by funeral home personnel, and burial into the ground. Most funeral homes will work with you to meet these requirements if you are clear that this is what you want.
Some funeral homes may attempt to sell the family an expensive casket or other services because “your loved one is worth it!” This approach is not in keeping with Jewish tradition. If problems arise between you and the funeral home personnel, have a rabbi intercede on your behalf.
Information the Funeral Home Will Need
The funeral home will need to know a number of things to prepare the death certificate, including:
- the full legal name of the deceased, including maiden name for a married woman who is using her husband’s last name
- full English names of the parents of the deceased
- Social Security number of the deceased
- citizenship of the deceased
- military status of the deceased
- place and date of birth of the deceased
- The funeral home will also need to know the answers to these questions:
- Where is the deceased to be buried? (If out of town, they will need the name of the funeral home handling the burial at the out-of-town location; also, if a traditional burial is desired [see below], they will need to know whether the Chevrah Kadisha at the burial location has been contacted.)
- When is burial desired? Is it necessary to wait for out of town relatives to arrive?
- Will there be a service before burial? If so, who is conducting that service and where?
Traditional Jewish Burial
“Traditional” does not mean “orthodox.” Neither the family nor the deceased needs to have been observant to have a traditional Jewish burial. All Jews deserve to be treated equally in death, and Jewish burial ensures the deceased will be treated with dignity and respect.
Many communities have a Chevrah Kadisha (sacred burial society) to handle the arrangements of burial preparation, including shmira (“guarding”) and taharah (“purification”). For more information on what a traditional Jewish burial is, see the Jewish End of Life Practices page.
If you are uncertain about these issues, a rabbi can help you understand them and make decisions.
For a traditional Jewish burial, the funeral home may ask for the Hebrew name of the deceased, including Hebrew names of parents, for the taharah. They should also ask if the deceased has a tallit (prayer shawl) and whether you want the deceased buried in a tallit. (The funeral home can generally provide one, if needed.)