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Points of View
True Lovingkindness
My Point of View--Feb 19, 1999
© Rabbi Jack Moline

While it is forbidden to begin the actual preparations until after a death, making "pre-arrangements" even for a healthy person is a wise choice which saves the surviving family members the need to make decisions under the pressure of the moment. Local funeral homes can help address these needs.

Our tradition is to attend the met (corpse) until the time of burial, which should take place at the earliest possible time after death. Except during actual preparation of the remains, the met is attended by a shomer(et), an individual who sits with the body and reads from the Book of Psalms. Many members of our congregation have had the privilege to fulfill this opportunity for kindness, and have found it peaceful and meaningful.

Shortly after death, the met is ritually bathed by a group of people known as a chevrah kaddisha (literally, "holy society"). Women prepare women and men prepare men, following a prescribed ritual of washing the met (called tohorah), then dressing the remains in a plain linen shroud. In America, the corpse is then placed in a coffin. (In Israel, the custom is to use a cloth burial sack.) The coffin should be made of wood and should be as plain and inexpensive as possible. Metal caskets are not permissible, as the goal is to allow for the natural processes to proceed unimpeded. Once the coffin is closed, it should not be reopened unless the identity of the met must be confirmed.

The burial should take place within a day, if possible, but may be delayed up to three days for Shabbat or holidays, or to enable the arrival of family members from points distant. Obviously, if physical circumstances or legal requirements require further delay, they must be accommodated, though mourning rituals for the bereaved may actually begin before the burial in extreme circumstances.

Ironically, the ceremony least structured in all of these rituals is the funeral. Most days, the service need include only k’riah (rending of a garment or fabric), a selection of psalms or other readings, a eulogy which accurately represents the uniqueness of the individual and the memorial prayer which begins eil malei rachamim ("God, full of compassion"). On certain days, including Rosh Chodesh and other semi-holidays, the service is abbreviated, eliminating the eulogy and replacing the memorial prayer with a different version.

Traditionally, the funeral is held at the site of the burial, but frequently a service is held in a location which enables people to gather and listen more easily. When the casket arrives at the cemetery, it is carried to the grave by pall bearers who stop momentarily seven times along the way to demonstrate our reluctance to take leave of the deceased. As the coffin is lowered into the grave, some recite tziduk hadin, a poem affirming God’s just decrees. The family and then others place earth on top of the casket to prepare an appropriate grave for the met. Traditionally, the grave was filled entirely. Today, many cemeteries require concrete liners, reducing this custom to covering the top of the casket. The memorial prayer may be recited again, and then kaddish is recited for the first time.

Upon leaving the graveside, the family passes between two rows of those who attended the service in a gesture of comfort. They are consoled with the words hamakom y’nacheim et’khem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei tzion virushalayim ("May God comfort you amidst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem"). Either upon leaving the cemetery or before entering a residence, those in attendance traditionally pour water over their hands, symbolizing the tohorah (ritual washing) which accompanies a death.

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