Beliefs about death and dying, and life after death

In the Jewish religion, death is seen as a natural process and as part of God’s plan.

Jewish practices following a death aim to ensure respect is shown to the dead but also to provide comfort to the living.

Treatment of the body of the person who has died

When a Jewish person dies, their body should not be left unattended. The rabbi or the funeral home can help coordinate a Shomer (guardian) who can stay with the body. This may be a family member, a friend or a member of the congregation. There may be more than one Shomer, or people taking turns in acting as Shomer to ensure someone stays with the body at all times. The Shomer may just sit with the body although it is traditional for the Shomer to recite tehillim (psalms).

Before burial the body is washed and dressed in simple garments made of linen or cotton. This ritual is known as Tahara, meaning purification. Any jewellery is removed from the body as people are buried as they came into the world, namely without any possessions. People are all considered equal in death. Orthodox males are traditionally buried in their fringed prayer shawl called a Tallit, and their personal prayer books may be placed beside them in the coffin.

Funerals and other ceremonies 

According to Jewish law, the body should be interred as soon as is practical after the death, which means that funeral planning begins immediately.

Open caskets are forbidden, and bodies are buried, not cremated. After the burial, a close friend or relative will prepare a first meal for the family of the person who has died.

Any faith member will be free to attend a funeral. However, the role of women at funerals may vary between Orthodox and other sects of Jews.

Length of and expectations around a mourning period

When a Jewish person dies, mourners will recite the prayer Dayan HaEmet, which recognises God’s power as the true judge. There are several periods of mourning beginning with Aninut, which is the time between death and burial.

Shiva is the period following the burial which lasts until the seventh day afterwards. Indeed the word 'Shiva' actually means seven. During the Shiva period the immediate family, the official mourners, sit 'in mourning' and receive visitors at pre-arranged times of the day. In the evenings, except for the Sabbath, prayers are recited, and people will attend these prayers to pay their respects. It is customary to wish the mourners 'A Long Life'. 

Shloshim is the next period of mourning which lasts until the 30th day after the burial, during which time the mourners do not attend celebratory events. Again the word 'Shloshim' actually means thirty.

Avelut is the final period of formal mourning which is observed only for the death of a parent. This period lasts for 12 months after the burial and for 11 of those months, starting from the time of the burial, the son of the person who has died (if there is one) recites the mourner’s Kaddish daily.

Support organisations

Our grateful thanks for their input into this resource to:

Reverend Yigal Wachmann and Anne Kletz, Jewish Faith Chaplains from the Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care Team at Southport and Ormskirk Hospitals NHS Trust

Melvyn Hartog, Head of Burial, United Synagogue, London

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