When accompanying a person who is leaving this plane of existence, it is customary to offer a confessional prayer which is known as a vidui. Even in our final moments of life, we express our regrets and our hopes. Nearing the moment of death either the patient or those attending recite an affirmation of God’s unity with all existence, to which we refer as the “Shema.” After the moment of death, it is customary to close the eyes of the departed and cover their body with a sheet or other cloth. Jewish tradition asks that we not leave the body alone to the extent possible. In the mystical tradition, the soul hovers near the body in the time after death and prior to interment in the ground.
The traditional words for consoling the mourner (nichum aveilim) are:
“May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
Jewish funeral rituals were crafted to honor each person with the dignity deserving of God’s creation. The entire funeral process is focused on respecting the deceased with kindness that can never be repaid. Mourners can find comfort in following the ancient traditions. The community role is to support the mourner with a comforting and reassuring presence.
The Jewish practice of shiva demonstrates both psychological and theological brilliance. During traditional shiva, the mourner remains at home for up to seven days. The door to the home is unlocked and visitors enter without being greeted, relieving the mourner of obligations to care for guests. Mirrors are covered so as to defer any attention to personal appearance. Mourners set aside all work obligations. The community might provide meals or straighten up the home so that the mourner may be left to grieve.
The Jewish tradition offers ways of bringing comfort and compassion to the person in mourning. For the community, the most important consolation we offer is our presence. We engage with the mourners primarily by listening to their expressions of sorrow. At such times, having the right words is a challenge for family and friends. A familiarity with prayers, texts and psalms may provide the few words needed to demonstrate our concern and provide comfort.
An unveiling is a time to reflect on a life and the memories of lives that touched ours. In Jewish tradition, we return to the cemetery to unveil the grave marker about eleven months after a person is buried. We mark our cemetery visits not with flowers, but with small stones, placed beside or atop this larger stone. A cut flower is a symbol of death and impermanence; a stone is a symbol of what lasts and what remains. Our lives are as fleeting as the flowers, but our love for one another remains, permanent as the earth from which these stones were taken, the earth to which we all return.