Understanding Jewish Approaches to Dying and Burial

Considerations before Dying

Writing and regularly updating a legal will, an ethical will, a living will, and power of attorney for finance and health care; be sure to specify in your living will your intention to fulfill the mitzvah of organ donation.

Acquiring the deed to your kever, grave

Genesis 3:19: “for you are dust and to dust you will return.” Jewish tradition views humanity as created from earth, so we are responsible for the rapid return of our body’s remaining nutrients to the earth to support the cycle of all living things. Most traditionally, this is done within 24 hours. It is customary to pre-arrange a grave for yourself; many do this in late mid-life. Organizing a family plot with a pre-paid perpetual care contract reduces stress on future generations and creates a genealogical cluster of grave markers that may become meaningful to those who come long after you.

A cemetery, beit olam, “eternal home” becomes sacred ground because of the dedicated use the community selects for it. Used Torahs, prayer books, anything written that is no longer of use because of damage or obsolescence that contains the most sacred, unpronounceable name of G*d (the Yud Hey Vav Hey, termed the tetragrammaton and usually pronounced Adonai in prayer and HaShem during study) must also be buried in a Jewish cemetery so that these items will return their material value to the earth and won’t be treated like garbage and desecrated through any public, institutional disposal mechanism. The grave for such items is called a genizah, from root word that means “hidden.” Burying a human body, which is also a manifestation of the image of G*d, serves the same function.

Jewish tradition compares a body to a Torah scroll so worn it can no longer be restored for use. These must both be treated with respect for their term of sacred service, and their physical substance returned to nourish the earth. 

When physically possible, dying is a process of consciously completing a mitzvah-centered life. 

The Jewish approach to dying involves several major additional life tasks including:

Teshuvah. Engage in all possible healthy efforts to heal open wounds in relationships before your death. If there are such wounds that you are responsible for keeping open, do everything in your power to release the person involved from responsibility and make sure he or she is informed. Leave this world with a clean slate; your ability to do this mitzvah called teshuvah will affect the wellness of future generations. (To learn more see our book,   Judaism as a Spiritual Practice, pages 15-33)

Goses. At the point when your doctors report that you are likely to be within three days of dying, you are considered to be a goses, one who is not to be disturbed. In order for families to implement this practice, it is important that they understand it in advance. Tell them, and in your living will leave instructions, that when this point is reached people should disturb you as little as possible. This does not, however, mean leaving you unattended or in pain; a dying person should not feel abandoned. [Y.D. 339:4] That said, nothing should be done that might interfere with your soul’s work of preparation and departure. (To learn more see Living Jewish Life Cycle, Volume III of the Reclaiming Judaism series.).

Vidui. This is a traditional piece of liturgy in which you take responsibility for what you’ve done in your life. Some elect to add to the liturgy from their own life’s specific journey. Those who are uncomfortable with G*d language may also create their own simple, free-flowing statements. Often translated as “confession,” a process-based approach to this idea is termed “life review.” Those clergy with Clinical Pastoral Counseling training can be wonderful guides through an end of life review process. For an interpretive version of Vidui please see Living Jewish Life Cycle, one then continues with the Shema:

Shema. This is the sacred phrase one says when going to sleep, waking up and leaving this life.
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיָ אֶחָד  Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad

No translation effectively conveys the meaning of this phrase, which reads like an Aha! moment: “Listen! G*d is One.”

All who are able, say the Shema, the Jewish prayer about the unity of All Being, when death becomes imminent. This is like putting a mezuzah up on the threshold of your life, the soul's last major act before leaving the body.

This exercise takes you through the Shema one word at a time. Deepening your relationship with this sacred phrase in life increases its power when we say it at death.

Shema - Listen

Listening is such a central Jewish principle that tradition teaches a dying person to leave life just as when going to sleep, by saying the sacred phrase that begins with this word, shema, “listen!” A dying person is not meant to be listening to the sounds of distressed family, nor the incessant beeping of hospital equipment. Dying is a time to listen at the gateway that leads out of life, beyond the threshold of the body. You might listen for the voice of G*d or for whatever experience might be awaiting you after embodied life ends. Here is what one person heard under these circumstances:

Mom, why do you sometimes say “the Shema is like a key?” Because when I had that stroke and thought I was dying I said the Shema right there in the emergency room. Soon after, I found myself floating up a long column full of white light. I saw my brother Barney at the opening and Uncle Jules and then my mother – my mother! And many others who have gone before me, smiling, their hands welcoming me like someone helps you when you climb up the side of a boat. I heard my mother’s voice! Then the light changed and they started to push me back, I didn’t want to go back, but they insisted. I woke up on the emergency room table, alive. The Shema, for me, tells us to listen for those coming to welcome you to the other side. The Shema tells us to listen for what comes next, it gives us the key.

Now, let’s go a word further in our text:

Shema Yisrael

Yisrael was the name given to Jacob, and by association it is the terminology for all his descendants and those who have joined his lineage, the Jewish people. This phrase was first said by Moses – you are hearing it across space and time, repeating an instruction of Torah enroute to the Mystery Beyond.

Shema Yisrael Adonai

Dying is a time of “Threshold”, Adonai consciousness. The root letters of Adonai - -aleph, daled, nun-- spell eh-den, “Threshold.” A huge sacred shift is taking place, from attention to affairs in this life to listening into the Beyond.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu

Eloheynu, our G*d-sense, this Threshold place of Mystery – what is it?

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad

Ehad means One. Judaism teaches that life begins when the baby’s head emerges from the birth canal and the first breath is drawn. That is when our soul enters, when our individual G*d-spark, what makes us in the image of G*d and fully human, arrives. At the end of life, we exhale our last breath, and the soul crosses the threshold of the body as a song leaves a cello to fall on ears Beyond, to be appreciated and to re-connect its energy with it’s source. Like a mobius strip, a soul’s life before, during and after, is all a manifestation of the One.

Loving and Leaving

In traditional prayer services, the Shema is bracketed by prayers that are about love. On the threshold of leaving this life, look back on the truth of your life, concluding with those you have loved and those times you love, remembering. The final rituals for a conscious or unconscious person during their dying are: 

1. A traditional Vidui, confessional prayer regarding our efforts in life.

2. Also saying the Shema when you are aware death is coming upon you, this way you are putting a mezuzah up at the Threshold of your life. Your soul may be about to move beyond your body. If tradition has it right, you will be pleasantly surprised.

3. Should you not have time to do this, know that it will be done for you if a Jewish hospice or chaplaincy program or a family rabbi is involved in your dying and death process.

For a step-by-step guide to Jewish funeral and mourning practices designed for use across all denominations, that covers the traditions, emotions, logistics and spiritual issues involved in depth, please consider our book Living Jewish Life Cycle: How to Create Meaningful Jewish Rites of Passage at Every Stage of Life