Jewish Traditions Regarding Death

Dec 7, 2009 | 0 comments

Jewish starJewish ritual strives toward kadosh, or holiness. Ironically, that term also translates to “separateness.” Jewish observances are designed to show reverence for those who die, concern for the welfare of those who mourn, and reinforce the daily holiness of our actions. While other religious traditions also incorporate these strivings, Jewish practices are very different from Christian observances.

In morning prayers, Jews are reminded of these actions to help bring holiness into the world. Devout Jews recite daily this prayer from the siddur (prayer book), “These are the obligations without measure, whose reward too is without measure, in this world and in the world to come: To honor father and mother; to do deeds of loving kindness; to attend the house of study daily; to welcome the stranger; to visit the sick; to comfort the mourner; to rejoice with bride and groom; and to make peace when there is strife.” Instead of comforting the mourner, one translation of this prayer dictates “following the departed to their last home.”

Many Jews are surprised to learn there is a Jewish final confessional prayer that the dying may say, or someone may say on the person’s behalf. In Hebrew, it is called Viddui. In English, one version goes like this:

“I acknowledge before the source of all that life and death are not in my hands. Just as I did not choose to be born, so I do not choose to die. May it come to pass that I may be healed, but if death is my fate, then I accept it with dignity and the loving calm of one who knows the ways of all things.

May my death be honorable and my life be a healing memory for those who know me. May my loved ones think well of me and my memory bring them joy. From all I may have hurt, I ask forgiveness, upon all who have hurt me, I bestow forgiveness. As a wave returns to the ocean, so I return to the source from which I came.

Shema, Israel, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Echad – Hear, oh Israel, that which we call God is oneness itself. Blessed is the way of God, the way of life and death, of coming and going, of meeting and loving, now and forever. As I am blessed with the one, so now I am blessed with the other. Shalom, Shalom, Shalom.”

(Usually translated as peace, Shalom can also mean fulfillment or wholeness and serves as a salutation for greeting or parting.)

Jewish law calls for a burial to take place within 24 hours of a person’s death, unless there is a compelling reason for delay. This is based on two biblical commandments, both found in Deuteronomy 21:23: “Thou shalt bury him the same day,” and “His body shall not remain all night.”

However, burials cannot take place on the Sabbath (Saturday) or a Jewish holiday. A funeral can be delayed to accommodate the arrival of very close relatives, but never more than three days. Delaying burial is considered disrespectful to both the dead person and the family, who cannot mourn while their dead lie before them.

View this YouTube video talk by death educator Gail Rubin with more information on Jewish funeral traditions.

Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist, is a pioneering death educator, member of the Albuquerque Chevrah Kadisha and Congregation Albert’s cemetery committee, and president of the nonprofit Historic Fairview Cemetery. A professional speaker who does virtual and in-person presentations, she has created many informative YouTube videos and online resources to help you become better acquainted with Jewish funeral traditions and planning ahead for end-of-life issues.

  • The Coronavirus Cinema Collection: Gail recommends movies that entertain while educating about funerals and end-of-life issues. These videos include “Jewish Funeral Traditions on Film,” which highlight Jewish rituals and traditions in the movies Nora’s Will, My Mexican Shivah, and This Is Where I Leave You. You can see all these film recommendation videos through this short link:
  • Jewish Funeral Traditions: This one-hour presentation explores Jewish rituals before, during and after a funeral. It was recorded at the Greater Albuquerque JCC’s Taste of Honey learning event in 2014.
  • Jewish Burial is Green Burial: This one-hour panel discussion features Donal Key with La Puerta Natural Burial Ground near Belen, Kilian Rempen with Albuquerque-based Passages International, a leading provider of green burial and eco-friendly funeral products, and Gail Rubin, CT, death educator and The Doyenne of Death®.
  • Ethical Wills and Ecclesiastes: This 20-minute talk explores the concept of the ethical will and its connection to the Book of Ecclesiastes (to everything, there is a season…).
  • Kosher Caskets by Fathers Building Futures: This local nonprofit builds beautiful, affordable kosher caskets. They provide jobs and skills to previously incarcerated fathers, offering opportunities for family stability. Several local funeral homes carry these caskets. The Jewish Federation of New Mexico supports this organization.  

You can find these and other videos by searching for @Gail Rubin on YouTube. You can also download a free 10-page end-of-life information planning form and 50-point Executor’s Checklist from Gail’s website,

A Good Goodbye