Jewish Death Rituals as Death Approaches
When a loved one is approaching death, it’s hard to know what to say and what to do. You may have questions about how to best care for your loved one and what the halacha (Jewish law) on end-of-life matters are all about. It is important to consult a Rabbi and notify him that you will be asking him all the questions that arise during this end-of-life period.
An important matter to keep in mind is that Judaism’s laws almost always encourage a person to take every step possible in order to prolong a patient’s life. This is true even in cases when quality of life is not enhanced. If you are not sure whether a medical intervention can be helpful or not, asking a Rabbi will give you a clearer picture of your obligations.
Throughout the time leading to a death, family members should attempt to be there at the patient’s bedside as much as possible. This is a mitzvah (good deed) of visiting the sick, as it supports a patient when he sees caring family members gathered around. It also gives the dying person a chance to give over his last instructions, say his goodbyes, and speak to his children about carrying out his wishes after death.
Meaning and Prayers at Jewish Death
When death is approaching, Jewish death rituals advise loved ones to keep the atmosphere in the patient’s room calm, making sure not to give the patient a sense of fear or grief. Rather, it’s important to focus on the needs of the patient, and be reassuring and supportive, as much as one can.
A Jewish person who is dying can focus on gaining as many merits for his soul as possible, and to express regret for anything he may have done wrong in his life. Jewish traditions for death include a person asking forgiveness from family members or anyone else that they may have hurt. A sick patient who does so gains merit for his recovery, even when this seems unlikely.
If it is impossible for a person to ask forgiveness from others, he should pray to G-d that forgiveness for hurting other people be granted to him.
At this time, the dying person should also attempt to forgive anyone who has hurt him in his lifetime. Realizing that one’s life is close to ending can help them find it in their hearts to overcome past hurts and forgive. As a person at the patient’s bedside, you can speak to them, helping them to let go and forgive as they pass on to a better world.
Just as one asks forgiveness from other people, one should also ask forgiveness from G-d. Therefore, the main Jewish prayer for death is Viduy. Viduy means confessing one’s sins, and asking forgiveness from G-d for his misdeeds. Saying this prayer is an important way to gain merit for one’s soul, and it is also a way to create a deeper relationship with G-d. As the person prepares for G-d to take his soul, this relationship is central in his mind. For the exact text of the Viduy prayer, and a further explanation of when to say it, see these deathbed prayers.
Encouraging a dying person to focus on giving and receiving forgiveness from man and G-d on their deathbed is a great kindness, because it will help them approach death with the proper mindset. It is also helpful to speak about the idea that a Jewish death is a transition. The neshamah (soul) of a Jewish person continues to live on in another world after death, a world that is beyond all pain and suffering. Remembering this can help a dying person face death with tranquility and peace.
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Approaching Death in Jewish Tradition
The Time of Death
Judaism tells us how, at the time of death, a dying person is allowed to glimpse the light of G-d, which is a beautiful transition to a better world. In fact, people who witness a death are sometimes surprised at how peaceful and tranquil it is, without the fear that we usually associate with death. The dying person often doesn’t appear afraid at all.
When it appears that death will occur at any moment, there are a few short deathbed prayers to say, which can also be said by the dying person if he is still conscious and verbal.
At this time, anyone who is present in the room is not allowed to leave. It is considered a great respect and privilege to watch over the person as their soul passes into another world. The atmosphere should reflect this respect and those present should say Psalms.(See text of some Psalms.) However, if someone present cannot tolerate it emotionally, he or she may leave.
After death actually takes place, Jewish customs for death advise not to move or touch the body for at least twenty minutes. Only after this amount of time passes will death be confirmed. Once death is confirmed, a family member should close the eyes and mouth of the deceased and cover the body with a sheet. If a family member cannot do so, another Jewish person may.
There are also specific Jewish customs for death to be followed immediately after death. If the death took place at home, this would mean covering the mirrors, and lighting candles around the deceased, or at the deceased’s head.
Because the body is a sacred vessel that has contained a precious Jewish soul, it is treated with the utmost respect and care. Its privacy and dignity must be protected. This means not allowing any autopsies to be done nor allowing any organs to be removed. It also includes the Jewish custom of Shemirah (watching) which means that a Jewish person should watch over the body until burial takes place, reciting psalms all the while.
Family members can also ask forgiveness from the deceased for anything they may have done to hurt him or her throughout their life. The general atmosphere in the room where the deceased lies should be one of respect to the deceased. This includes not eating, drinking, or smoking in the room.
Everything done for the deceased is now considered a Chesed Shel Emes, a true kindness. This is because the deceased has no way of returning the kindness. Such kindness is considered to be the highest level of performing good deeds in Judaism.
All conversation that takes place in the room should either focus on burial arrangements, or center on the good qualities of the deceased. There should not be any negative remarks made about the deceased.
As soon as possible, funeral burial plans should commence. A Jewish burial takes place immediately after death. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to contact either a Jewish rabbi or a Chevra Kaddisha (Jewish burial service). The Chevra Kaddisha will follow all Jewish burial customs and help prepare the body properly for burial according to Jewish death traditions. This includes washing the body and wrapping it in shrouds before placing it in a simple pine coffin for burial.
Treating a loved one’s death in this manner, with the respect and dignity of Jewish customs, can help a mourning family member feel at peace. It’s a comfort to know that you’ve done everything for your family member in a caring and Jewish way.