When a death occurs, there seem to be a million details to address. It is hard to know what to do first.
First, you grieve.
Ritually, the rending (tearing) of a garment and the recitation of the brakha which ends dayan ha-emet (the True Judge) is the expression of grief. You may feel a rush of tears and dismay or a sense of neutral detachment – or a combination of many different emotions. Except in very unusual circumstances, you should expect to be allowed time to express your grief in your own way before being asked to attend to details. Take the time to notify family members, or to have others notify them. Postpone this personal time only if you can provide for others through granting permission for organ donation (more details in a future column).
Once you are prepared to begin practical preparations, follow these guidelines. First, if you are asked about the disposition of the deceased, be certain that a death certificate has been prepared. Unless the law or extreme medical circumstances require otherwise, autopsy is never permitted under Jewish law. Contact the funeral home of your choice. (At the moment, none of the funeral homes in our area is owned or exclusively operated by Jews.) Inform the home of the location of the deceased and that you wish to have a traditional Jewish funeral. Then call the synagogue or, after hours, the emergency number for the staff member on duty. (Do not schedule a service without speaking first to the rabbi who will officiate.)
If you have not previously purchased a cemetery plot, you must do so. Agudas Achim maintains a traditional cemetery in Old Town. Only members of the congregation may be buried there. Many of our families have plots at King David Memorial Park in Falls Church, a commercial cemetery which serves the Jewish community. Other options are available though, like the funeral homes, the Jewish-owned-and-operated cemeteries are mostly a thing of the past.
Neither the funeral home nor the cemetery should require you to violate Shabbat to make arrangements in a timely manner. Direct any representative who asks you to do so to the synagogue or staff member on duty.
Once these arrangements are made, let the community take care of you. Our Sisterhood will arrange for your first meal upon return from the cemetery (or, if circumstances require, a different meal). The rabbi will help guide you through preparations and the initial stages of bereavement. With your cooperation, a schedule of minyanim will be arranged.
Jewish law exempts first-degree mourners (children, parents, siblings, spouse) from the requirements of prayer and most other time-bound mitzvot (though not Shabbat or holidays) between the time of death and the burial. Take the time to allow your grief to begin to express itself; chasing it away with busy-work will only postpone – and maybe complicate – your reactions.