In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. Death is a natural process. Our deaths, like our lives, have meaning and are all part of G-d’s plan. In addition, we have a firm belief in an afterlife, a world to come, where those who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded.
Mourning practices in Judaism are extensive, but they are not an expression of fear or distaste for death. Jewish practices relating to death and mourning have two purposes: to show respect for the dead (kavod ha-met), and to comfort the living (nihum avelim), who will miss the deceased.
After a person dies, the eyes are closed, the body is laid on the floor and covered, and candles are lit next to the body. The body is never left alone until after burial, as a sign of respect. The people who sit with the dead body are called shomerim, meaning “guards” or “keepers”.
Respect for the dead body is a matter of paramount importance. For example, the shomerim may not eat, drink, or perform a commandment in the presence of the dead. To do so would be considered mocking the dead, because the dead can no longer do these things.
Most communities have an organisation to care for the dead, known as the chevra kaddisha (the holy society). These people are volunteers. Their work is considered extremely meritorious, because they are performing a service for someone who can never repay them.
Autopsies in general are discouraged as desecration of the body. They are permitted, however, where it may save a life or where local law requires it. When autopsies must be performed, they should be minimally intrusive.
The presence of a dead body is considered a source of ritual impurity. For this reason, a priest (kohein) may not be in the presence of a corpse. People who have been in the presence of a body wash their hands before entering a home. This is done to symbolically remove spiritual impurity, not physical uncleanness: it applies regardless of whether you have physically touched the body.
In preparation for the burial, the body is thoroughly cleaned and wrapped in a simple, plain linen shroud. The Sages decreed that both the dress of the body and the coffin should be simple, so that a poor person would not receive less honour in death than a rich person. The body is wrapped in a tallit (fringed garment) The body is not embalmed, and no organs or fluids may be removed. According to some sources, organ donation is permitted, because the subsequent burial of the donor will satisfy the requirement of burying the entire body.
The body must not be cremated. It must be buried in the earth. Coffins are not required, but if they are used, they must have holes drilled in them so the body comes in contact with the earth.
The body is never displayed at funerals; open casket ceremonies are forbidden by Jewish law. According to Jewish law, exposing a body is considered disrespectful, because it allows not only friends, but also enemies to view the dead, mocking their helpless state.
Jewish mourning practices can be broken into several periods of decreasing intensity. These mourning periods allow the full expression of grief, while discouraging excesses of grief and allowing the mourner to gradually return to a normal life.
When a close relative (parent, sibling, spouse or child) first hears of the death of a relative, it is traditional to express the initial grief by tearing one’s clothing. The tear is made over the heart if the deceased is a parent, or over the right side of the chest for other relatives. This tearing of the clothing is referred to as keriyah . The mourner recites the blessing describing G-d as “the true Judge,” an acceptance of G-d’s taking of the life of a relative.
From the time of death to the burial, the mourner’s sole responsibility is caring for the deceased and preparing for the burial. This period is known as aninut. During this time, the mourners are exempt from all positive commandments (“thou shalts”), because the preparations take first priority. This period usually lasts a day or two; Judaism requires prompt burial.
During this aninut period, the family should be left alone and allowed the full expression of grief. Condolence calls or visits should not be made during this time. After the burial, a close relative, near neighbour or friend prepares the first meal for the mourners, the se’udat havra’ah (meal of condolence). This meal traditionally consists of eggs (a symbol of life) and bread. The meal is for the family only, not for visitors. After this time, condolence calls are permitted.
The next period of mourning is known as shiva (seven, because it lasts seven days). Shiva is observed by parents, children, spouses and siblings of the deceased, preferably all together in the deceased’s home. Shiva begins on the day of burial and continues until the morning of the seventh day after burial. Mourners sit on low stools or the floor instead of chairs, do not wear leather shoes, do not shave or cut their hair, do not wear cosmetics, do not work, and do not do things for comfort or pleasure, such as bathe, have sex, put on fresh clothing, or study Torah (except Torah related to mourning and grief). Mourners wear the clothes that they tore at the time of learning of the death or at the funeral. Mirrors in the house are covered. Prayer services are held where the shiva is held, with friends, neighbours and relatives making up the minyan (10 people required for certain prayers).
The next period of mourning is known as shloshim (thirty, because it lasts until the 30th day after burial). During that period, the mourners do not attend parties or celebrations, do not shave or cut their hair, and do not listen to music.
The final period of formal mourning is avelut, which is observed only for a parent. This period lasts for twelve months after the burial. During that time, mourners avoid parties, celebrations, theatre and concerts. For eleven months of that period, starting at the time of burial, the son of the deceased recites the mourner’s Kaddish every day.
After the avelut period is complete, the family of the deceased is not permitted to continue formal mourning; however, there are a few continuing acknowledgments of the decedent. Every year, on the anniversary of the death, family members observe the deceased’s yahrzeit (anniversary). On the yahrzeit, sons recite Kaddish and take an aliyah (bless the Torah reading) in synagogue if possible, and all mourners light a candle in honour of the decedent that burns for 24 hours.
When visiting a mourner, a guest should not try to express grief with standard, shallow platitudes. The guest should allow the mourner to initiate conversations. One should not divert the conversation from talking about the deceased; to do so would limit the mourner’s ability to fully express grief, which is the purpose of the mourning period. On the contrary, the caller should encourage conversation about the deceased.
When leaving a house of mourning, it is traditional for the guest to say, “May the Lord comfort you with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Taken from the Judaism 101 website