How Are Last Rites Ceremonies Performed in the Jewish Faith?

Updated April 17, 2017

In Judaism, when a person dies, the soul begins its journey from this life to the life hereafter. Showing respect to the body that contained the soul is the basis for the Jewish laws that have been in place since Biblical times. The laws state that ritual purification, burial and mourning are the last tributes that can be paid to the deceased.

When Death Is Imminent

When a person is in the hospital or has been at home suffering from an illness and death appears imminent, it is customary for the family to gather around and recite special Tehillim, or Psalms. If the person is conscious, care must be taken to allow him to make any prayers or ask for forgiveness. If a person dies suddenly or in an accident, the same respect and care must be taken to honour the dead person. Once the person is no longer alive, the eyes should be closed and the body lowered to the floor on a sheet with the feet facing the door, and the body should be covered with another sheet. Candles are lit around the room where the deceased is.

Caring for the Deceased

Once physical life ceases to continue, the body is not left alone until burial. The people who take charge of this tribute to the deceased are learnt Torah scholars or women who are well-versed in the rituals pertaining to the dead. They sit with the body and say Tehillim. One cannot perform any mitzvah (commandment from the Torah) in front of the deceased because, once a person is dead, she can no longer say blessings nor do other mitzvahs, and to do so in front of the deceased would be considered mocking. For example, no eating or drinking would be allowed.

Chevra Kadisha

In most Jewish communities, the care of the deceased is given to learnt volunteers who are part of a society called Chevra Kadisha (Society of the Holy). These dedicated people learn all the Halachas (Jewish laws as stated in the Torah) pertaining to the care of the body after death. The body is washed and placed in a ritual bath known as a mikvah. Men handle the bodies of men, and women of women. A man is buried wearing his Tallis (prayer shawl) and a white garment known as a kittel, a cotton long coat. The body is then wrapped in a plain linen shroud. This applies to all Jews, regardless of who they were or what their position in society was. This is to show that when deceased, a rich person is no different than a poor person, and one should devote life to doing good deeds and following the Torah's prescriptions for life.

Preparing for the Final Resting Place

In the land of Israel, it is the custom for the body to be laid in the ground wrapped in the linen shroud with no coffin. If a coffin is used, as is the custom in other places, it must be of the simplest unfinished pine and have holes drilled in it so that the body comes in contact with the earth. This is the ultimate understanding that regardless of who you are when you're alive, all are equal in death; and as one comes from dust, so one returns to dust. Once all the respect has been given to the person who is deceased, it is considered a very big mitzvah to walk behind the linen-wrapped body or coffin to the final resting place where the funeral will then take place.

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About the Author

Rivka Ray has been writing professionally since 1978, contributing to publications such as the National Review Online. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of North Carolina and a Bachelor of Science in medicine from the American College in Jerusalem. Ray has also taught English as a second language to adults.