Jewish rituals for death and dying

Jewish rituals for death and dying

A brief overview of Jewish beliefs and rituals in relation to death and dying. At the present time we have also included information for those with loved ones admitted to hospital during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Information for use during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic

Information for families whose relatives are admitted to hospital during Covid-19 lockdown period.

“Judaism stresses very strongly the importance of taking care of your own health and the health of everybody,” reminds Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.

How to feel close to your loved one

During times of increased Covid-19 precautions visiting in hospitals and care homes will be limited or even prohibited. It may not be possible to be by the bedside of your loved one, but you can still find ways to feel close to them at home. Set regular times when they know that you will be praying for and with them. The Psalms, especially 23, 121 and the first part of 139, can offer comfort. Some people have found it helpful to light a candle, to sit with a special picture or to spend time calling to mind their sick family member and the things that are important to them.

The chief Rabbi has composed a special prayer which can be recited at home at a time of your choosing. Read the prayer here.

Virtual communication may be an option. It may be helpful to send a phone or tablet to hospital with your relative, but be prepared that, for technical reasons, this may not always work or they may be too sleepy to communicate in this way.

Ask the ward staff to pass messages and to do the things you would like to do yourself. They will be pleased to help.
Ask if the hospital chaplain has resources that your relative can use. They may be able to provide prayer card including the Shema. A Rabbi may be able to visit.

If your relative dies

At times of increased precautions, it is much harder to do things quickly. Be patient with the process and the people involved.

The Government has put limits on numbers of people attending funerals, usually only close family and no more than 30 people. Attendees must not have coronavirus symptoms, they must not be subject to the requirement to self-isolate, and if they are in an ‘at risk’ category such as being 70 years old and over and/or those who have underlying medical conditions, they may wish to protect their own wellbeing by staying away.

All attendees at events should wash their hands regularly according to best-practice, should stand at least 2 metres apart and should refrain from handshaking, hugging or kissing. Ceremonies should be as short as possible. No singing is allowed.

You may be able to watch the burial via livestream technology. Similarly, prayers in the house of mourning can be shared virtually by internet or phone.

Draw on the support of your community. In many areas, and on the internet, there is much on offer.

Key points at other times

1. Stay with the dying person

2. Help them to make peace with adversaries

3. Support them in making a deathbed confession

4. Encourage them to make the Jewish declaration of faith

5. It is never too late to turn to God

Jewish beliefs about death and dying

Most religious Jews believe that as they near the end of their lives, they should settle their affairs and make a will and that they should be reconciled with any family members with whom they have disagreed. They also believe they should make a deathbed confession and that their last words should be the Jewish declaration of faith. All Jewish denominations teach that the dying person should not be left alone.

Contact the Rabbi early

Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire is part of the Reform tradition. He says it is a good idea for a Jew to contact their rabbi when they receive a diagnosis of terminal illness.

Rabbi Romain says: “As a rabbi I can talk to them about any last wishes they may have or anything they want done. Have they made a will for instance? If they haven’t, it could deprive their family of income and lead to friction.

“I can also help them to plan their funeral. Some people are very scared of mentioning that word while others find it quite comforting to plan what they want by way of music, readings and so on.”

To make peace

Rabbi Romain advises the dying to make peace with those they have fallen out with.

“I will ask them if there is any unresolved conflict, particularly within the family. It is a time for being reconciled so you can die with an easy heart rather than regret,” he says.

In both the Reform and Orthodox traditions, there is no requirement for a rabbi to be present at the bedside. Rabbi Romain says he is usually not contacted until after the person has died. However, he will always respond to a request from a dying person to visit.

Viddui prayer before death

When a dying person is nearing the end, they are encouraged to make a final confession known as the Viddui. This is an examination of conscience and a seeking of forgiveness from God.

The confession includes the following words: “I regret the hurts I have caused and the mistakes I have made. Forgive my sins and my soul will be pure as it returns to You. Protect those I love whom I leave behind, for their lives are in Your care…”

Rabbi Romain says a person can do this on their own or ask a friend or rabbi to help them.

Rabbi Stanley Coton, Senior Jewish hospital chaplain for Jvisit and an Orthodox rabbi says he is usually called to the bedside when a patient is approaching the end of their life.

“The person makes their confession when they are in extremis but we do say to them that many people have made the confession and lived on,” Rabbi Coton says.

“If they are conscious, we explain that one of the teachings is that a person’s passing into the next world is a cathartic experience. Seeking the forgiveness of sins is part of that experience and it is a time of reconciliation and atonement. The rabbi can do the confession with them or, if that isn’t possible, say it for them. It should be said in Hebrew if possible. If not, the rabbi can give a synopsis in English.

“Most people make a general confession. I have never asked someone to list their sins but they can if they want to. My focus is to try to support them.”

Never too late to turn to God

Rabbi Coton will also read psalms if requested by the patient. He adds that he will always go to a dying patient even if he is called to the hospital at the last moment by someone who has not practised their faith in recent years.

Jewish declaration of faith

The last words of a dying Jew should be the Shema. This is the Jewish declaration of faith that begins:  Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deuteronomy 6:4). It is the most important declaration in Judaism and observant Jews say it at least twice a day.

“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”

Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

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