Attending to the Dying
To stay with a person as he or she passes from this world into the next is an act of great honor and respect.
In times gone by the Chevra Kaddisha, the burial society, would be called in to care for the dying person, the go-sess. They prayed by reciting the verses from Psalm 119 that corresponded to the letters in the person’s Hebrew name.
The Chevra Kaddisha encouraged those on the hovering between this world and the next to make peace with this world by encouraging them to bless their children and ask forgiveness from their family and friends. While the Chevra Kaddisha still exists, nowadays they usually arrive after the time of death to prepare a body for burial.
May a Kohen be Present
A Kohen who is a doctor may stay and treat a go-sess, because prolonging life takes precedence over other concerns. Normally, a Kohen, a descendant of those who served in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, avoids contact with the dead to maintain spiritual degree of purity that would enable him to serve in the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash. This is why a Kohen who is not a doctor may not enter a go-sess’s room, except if the go-sess is a close relative.
Psalms – Tehillim
When possible the go-sess will recite specific chapters of Tehillim, Psalms, that deal with subjects that offer comfort and hope. In Chapter 16, the go-sess speaks to God, who takes care of the soul in the afterlife. Chapter 23, speaks of God as shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death (Chapter 23). In Chapters 25 and 51, God is praised for forgiving sins and rewarding the soul. Other chapters refer to God as the consoler, the Ever-present, (Chapters 91, 102, 103). Still more chapters that traditionally have been recited at this time: 139, 142, 20, 22, 24, 30, 31, 42, 43, 61, 7, 84, 116, 123, 130, 143, and 150.
Confession – Vidui
During the last moments of life, the go-sess has an opportunity to verbally make peace with a lifetime of accomplishments and shortcomings through the Vidui prayer of confession. This acrostic prayer is recited on Yom Kippur and encompasses a full range of misdeeds.
Jewish confession should not be confused with the Catholic ritual because Judaism does not grant human beings the power to absolve sins
Vidui may be found in most complete Siddurim, prayer books.
Some rabbis explain that confessing these sins signals an acceptance of the illness and suffering as atonement, clearing the way to a full, everlasting peace in the World to Come. It is a mitzvah to help someone say Vidui and to recite it for a go-sess who is incapable of saying the words.
Loss of hope to live is not a prerequisite for saying this prayer.
The Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, reminds the go-sess that saying Vidui does not bring on death, it does not preclude any hope of recovery.
Sephardic Jews bid leave before the community and gather a minyan, a quorum of ten people, before saying the Vidui.
The Shema Prayer
Generations of Jews have chosen the Shema prayer as their
final utterance. This central prayer of Judaism proclaims God’s
"Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echod."
Listen oh Israel, the Lord, Our God is One.
God is acknowledged as the source of all, the Source before whom we are all equal.
Caring for the Deceased
And then the moment has come.
Customary care for the deceased spells out an honorable way for the bereaved to act. The instructions are specific to help survivors shift into automatic action.
Tradition acknowledges the numbness that comes with a loss and
lists a host of things to do before burial. The body is attended to
tenderly. Eyes should be closed, the mouth shut and prevented from
opening. Straighten limbs and keep them from dangling over the
bedside. Draped a cloth over the body. The body would be positioned so
that the feet would face the door. Some have the custom to lower the
body to the floor.
A general atmosphere of reverence is maintained. Eating, drinking,
smoking, singing, and playing music is inappropriate. These are
pleasures the deceased cannot enjoy anymore.
Hurtful words should not be said about the deceased who is unable to reply to the accusations.
If words of reconciliation could not be said in life, now is the time to ask forgiveness for causing the deceased any pain or sadness.
Light a candle and place it near the head. Or light many candles and place them around the body. Aside from casting a peaceful glow, flames drive away negative spiritual forces.
A relative, a friend or a member of the Chevra Kaddisha should remain beside the body at all times. Psalms 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd” and 91, which speaks of God as Protector, should be recited.
If the death occurred anywhere outside of a hospital, now is the time to call the doctor. Calls should also be placed to the rabbi, who will notify the Chevra Kaddisha, and to the funeral director, who will take care of the necessary certification and arrange for transportation of the body.
What to Do at the Time of Death
Words to Say
It is perhaps the hardest blessing to say. At a moment of loss or upon hearing the sad news, God is honored as the True Judge whose judgment is ultimately righteous. The blessing recalls that God, whose wisdom is praised when He provides open acts of goodness, is the very same God who decides the time of death.
The words “Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam Dayan HaEmet,”
Blessed are you God, King of the world, the Righteous Judge are spoken by those most affected by the loss: children, parents, spouses and siblings.
Others outside of the family generally follow the custom of omitting God’s name from the blessing: Baruch Dayan Emet, Blessed is the true judge.
Stiff upper lips and keeping up public appearances are not part of the Jewish mourning tradition. Several customary signs inform neighbors of their duty to begin caring for the mourners among them.
Mourners pour out the water that had been stored in their homes, sending news of the loss flowing through the streets. More often, the water is poured down the drain.
Death and water are linked in Samuel II 14:14, “for we shall surely die and be as water spilled.” Water is thought to act as a barrier against the spiritual forces that accompanied Death, and it was sometimes spilled alongside the body itself.
Mineral water, carbonated water, and water that would be a financial loss if poured out are not spilled. This includes ice, bottled water, and water boiled for Shabbat
This custom is not followed on Shabbat, Saturday night, or on Yom Tov - Jewish holidays. On the second days of Yom Tov, which are only celebrated outside of Israel, water may be poured out. Mourning customs are generally suspended on these days of communal joy.
The bereaved open the windows in the house to symbolically assist the departed soul on its ascent heavenward. The Book of Daniel (6:11) describes how Daniel opened a window before praying. Commentators explain that Daniel did this to drive away harmful spirits.
Many lessons are drawn from the well known Jewish custom for mourners to cover their mirrors.
- Covered mirrors remind a mourner to look to others for sympathy and not to expect to be a tower of self-reliance and strength. Shiva is a time to look inward at the deepest parts that hurt, when superficial answers and the mirror’s reassurance “you look like you’re holding up well” do not help.
- A mirror-free home keeps personal vanity out of sight, a considerate gesture when the deceased can no longer achieve physical beauty.
- Each person is created in the image of God. Each loss is diminishes this image, so to speak. Covered mirrors reflect this loss.
- On a practical level, covered mirrors act as reminders of the Halacha to refrain from marital relations during Shiva. Putting on just the right shade of lipstick, checking out a shave in the mirror in preparation for an intimate evening is applauded by Judaism, which celebrates physical love between husband and wife – but not during Shiva. Mirrors lose their mitzvah connection during this mourning period, so they are covered.
There are several ways to cover mirrors. Hang fitted sheets over framed mirrors. Cloud mirrored surfaces with sudsy water. Small mirrors are easier to remove or turn around.