In the short time (often no longer than a day or even a few hours) between notification of death and the actual burial there is much to be done. The chevra kadisha makes some of the necessary arrangements, but the family is responsible for others. You may consider hiring professionals to take care of these arrangements for you.
In the period between the deceased's death and his burial, immediate relatives (mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, and spouse) are considered onenim. An onen, according to Jewish tradition, is one 'whose deceased [relative] lies before him', in other words, one who is overwhelmed by the loss. The assumption is that an onen is completely absorbed in his mourning and in preparations for the burial. Consequently, he is exempt from all traditional Jewish responsibilities such as prayer or blessings. The laws of mourning commence at this time. Thus traditional Jews who are onenim do not bathe, cut their hair, shave, use creams (for non-medicinal purposes), attend festive occasions, study Torah, eat meat and drink wine, or have marital relations.
Arrangements Made by the Family
Time and Place
At first you should contact a chevra kadisha to coordinate, based on where you live and the place of death, the time of the funeral and the cemetery in which the deceased will be buried. It is customary to bury the deceased as soon as possible, so that there won't be a need to leave the corpse overnight without burial. Nevertheless, be sure to take into account the time you need to notify people of the funeral. If the deceased died in the afternoon or evening, it will be difficult to arrange a funeral for the same night, though some people and chevra kadishas still prefer to do so. The primary consideration in making this decision ought to be respect for the deceased: one must strike a balance between the need to show respect by burying quickly and the respect accorded by having more people attend the funeral. Of course, one must also consider the deceased's family, and, if a close relative lives abroad, it is customary to wait for him and to set the funeral time accordingly.
Coordinating with the Chevra Kadisha
As early as possible, you should coordinate the time of the funeral with the chevra kadisha to ensure that there will be gravediggers available for your loved one’s burial and that there are no burials taking place in the same area of the cemetery simultaneously. If you suspect that a minyan (a quorum of ten men above the age of 13) will not attend the funeral and it is important to you to say Kaddish, verify whether the chevra kadisha can assemble a minyan for you. If you are from a family of kohanim, inform the chevra kadisha of this from the outset.
Special Burial Arrangements
If you want special arrangements such as flaxen shrouds, a tallit for the funeral, or a special route for the funeral procession, arrange for this in advance – you need to inform the chevra kadisha and coordinate with them, order the various articles and services, and pay for them. Burial in a coffin or in clothing other than shrouds is discouraged (under normal circumstances) according to traditional Jewish practice in Israel, so chevra kadishas will generally not agree to these requests.
Obtaining a Burial Permit
Chevra kadishas are not authorized to perform burials without a burial permit issued by the Health Ministry. In order to get this permit, you need to bring the proper documents to the Health Ministry's department for burial permits in your district.
• If the death took place in a hospital - you need:
1. 3 copies of the death report (from the hospital)
2. The deceased's ID card (or a photocopy of the card)
• If the death took place elsewhere, and MDA staff pronounced him dead, you need:
1. 3 copies of the death report (from the MDA doctor)
2. A medical report from MDA
3. The deceased's ID card (or a photocopy)
4. If the circumstances of death are unclear, also bring a letter from the police stating that no criminal act is linked to the death. Make sure that the police take only one copy of the death report, and that you are left with at least two originals.
During the Health Department's office hours, the hospital's admissions desk can send the death report and receive the burial permit by fax, to save you running from office to office. If the hospital is not equipped for this or the death took place at home, you will need to go personally to the Health Ministry in order to receive a burial permit. If the death took place after the department's office hours, and the funeral is planned for that same day – the chevra kadisha will take the necessary documents and arrange the matter through the Ministry of Health's night hotline. In certain localities, the chevra kadisha assumes responsibility for this entire matter, even during the day. Guidelines may be hanging on the door of the Health Ministry’s office regarding whom to call during evening hours, or directing you to the emergency room of the relevant hospital. Take note: the Ministry of Health’s burial permit department should have a request form for a death certificate from the Interior Ministry. If you are already there and they do in fact have the form – fill it out on the spot and a death certificate will be mailed directly to your house. If you did not arrange the death certificate at this time, you can do so at the Interior Ministry even after the burial (the death report that you received from the physician is not an official, legal death certificate, like the one issued by the Interior Ministry).
For a list and contact details of departments that issue burial permits, contact the ITIM hotline 1-700-500-507
Notifying Friends and Family
After you set a time and place for the funeral, you need to notify friends and family of the deceased and of the mourners. Chevra kadishas operate on tight schedules, and often must insist on adhering to times that were set for the eulogy and the funeral procession. The mourners themselves do not need to spend hours on the phone, notifying people about the funeral. Instead, identify one responsible person in each of your circles of acquaintances (work, neighbors, family on each side, etc.) and let them pass on the message.
If you are interested in placing death announcements in newspapers or on bulletin boards (though there is no obligation to do so), contact one of the private firms that specialize in this service. These businesses provide the service immediately, and most are willing to hang signs throughout an area for an additional fee. Before contracting the job, decide where you want the signs hung and their precise wording. Remember to include the address of where the mourners will sit shiva (seven days of mourning), the list of mourners, the deceased’s full name, and – if you plan to have daily prayer services in the mourner’s home –the times of prayer as well. The printer will have several commonly used formulations for the death notices for you to choose from. You will generally be charged based on the number of lines. Make sure to keep a few notices to hang in the entranceway to the mourners' building and on their door.
The deceased's immediate family must decide who will deliver the eulogies at the funeral home. Try to resolve this issue as early as possible so that whoever assumes this serious responsibility will have as much time as possible to devote to it. Try not to speak too long: remember that those attending the funeral will be standing for quite a while, often in crowded conditions and uncomfortable weather. Appoint someone to be in charge of coordinating the time of the eulogies with the chevra kadisha. Friends may request to say a few words at the funeral; this can be dignified and moving but, sometimes, it can be offensive to the family.
What to Bring to the Funeral
The walk to the gravesite and the burial ceremony is likely to be long. Even the young and strong, and certainly the elderly, will find the ceremony emotionally and physically taxing. Prepare accordingly: bring warm clothing in the winter, and water bottles and a head covering to protect yourself from the sun in the summer. Bring folding chairs if you are expecting elderly or sick people to attend. Bring tissues, and if you wish to cover your eyes, dark sunglasses. At traditional funerals, it is generally customary to cover one's head; take kippot for the men and kerchiefs or hats for the women. If the deceased was a male who owned a tallit, bring it with you, since it is customary to wrap him in it at the time of the funeral.
This question may seem out of place, since after all, what difference does attire make at a time like this? Yet, at a traditional ceremony the deceased's immediate relatives (parents, siblings, and spouse) rend their shirts and continue to wear these all seven days of mourning. After shiva, many people also follow the custom of discarding this clothing. For the most part traditional Jews do not follow the Western custom of wearing black as a sign of mourning.
Preparing the House for Shiva (Seven Days of Mourning)
If you have chosen to observe the laws of shiva, you will need to decide in which house to sit. Take into account both the location and size of the mourners’ home: be sure that there is adequate space to seat all the visitors, for conducting prayer services, and for the mourners to rest. Some people have the custom to build a 'mourners' tent' near the house, by stretching a sheet over a designated area outside (for shade) and setting up chairs there. One must equip the 'house of mourning' with memorial candles, a large number of chairs, and – if prayer services will be held there – siddurim, kippot, and a Torah scroll. Any unnecessary furniture or valuables that could be damaged should be removed, low seats should be set up for the mourners, and the mirrors should be covered. It isn't necessary to complete all the arrangements before the funeral, but one should take into account that the stream of visitors will probably begin immediately after the funeral.
Se'udat Havra'ah (Meal of Condolence)
Upon your return from the cemetery, it is customary to sit down to a se'udat havra'ah. This is the first meal that the mourners eat after the burial, and it is customary to eat round foods at it, such as eggs, lentils, and bagels, symbolizing the cycle of life and death. Traditional practices of mourning attempt to strike a balance between expressing one's suffering and recognizing the need to resume one’s daily life. Thus, the first moment of mourning is connected to a meal. It is customary for friends and relatives to provide the food for this meal, to demonstrate their concern for the mourners' welfare.
Arrangements Made by the Chevra Kadisha
In general, the chevra kadisha is responsible for transporting the deceased from his place of death, watching over his body, and tending to it until the burial. During this period of time, the chevra kadisha carries out several tasks:
Transporting the Body to the Funeral Home
In every city or municipality there is a central place where bodies are kept until their burial. The chevra kadisha transfers the body from this place to the funeral home and then to the cemetery. The chevra kadisha will also take care of any additional transfers for a fee, which varies depending on the specific burial society and the city.
1. If the deceased died in his house or on the street, the family is responsible for ordering an ambulance to transport the body to a hospital or storage facility. In certain cities, the chevra kadisha provides this service.
2. If the deceased died in a hospital, the chevra kadisha will generally transfer him directly to the storage facility.
3. If there are problems identifying the body or certain unnatural circumstances of death, the police will most likely send the body to the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir and then take care of bringing the body to the funeral home. In certain exceptional cases, however, you will need to hire a private ambulance to bring the body to the main funeral home (from where the chevra kadisha will transport it to the relevant cemetery).
This ceremony, performed to show respect for the deceased, includes washing the deceased's body, dressing him, and preparing him for burial. Members of the chevra kadisha, called mitaskim, perform these tasks. Between 3 and 6 people work on each body, with only men doing the tahara on men and only women on women. These mitaskim show the utmost respect for the deceased, never forgetting that every man was created in the image of God.
The tahara is done in a specially designated room, generally located near the funeral home. The deceased is placed on a special plank, with his legs pointing in the direction of the door and his head toward the interior of the room, symbolizing that upon death, man abandons temporal existence and the impurity symbolized by the legs, and what remains is his soul, symbolized by the head. While the mitaskim wash and clean the body they recite verses related to these processes such as, ‘Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean, from all your uncleanness and from all your idols, I will cleanse you’ (Ezekiel 36:25). These verses are recited both because of their relevant content and to prevent the mitaskim from idle talk while the deceased lies before them. The mitaskim are careful to maintain the deceased's dignity, covering his or her body while they wash and comb the hair. They cut the deceased's nails and wash him in approximately 7 liters of water. The custom in some locales concludes by immersing the deceased in a ritual bath (mikveh).
After bathing him, the mitaskim dress the deceased in special burial garments made from simple white cloth, called tachrichim. The tachrichim include pants, shirt, cloth shoes, and a hat. On top of the clothes, the mitaskim wrap the body in a large white cloth, called a sovev. In Israel, it is not customary to wrap the deceased in a tallit, as is done outside of Israel. If the family requests, the deceased can be wrapped in a tallit during the funeral, but it will generally be removed before burial.
Digging the Grave
The chevra kadisha is responsible for designating a grave site, digging the grave, and bringing the necessary equipment to the funeral – a bier to carry the deceased, shovels to cover the grave, etc. The chevra kadisha assigns grave plots based on considerations of time and space – in general two adjacent graves are not dug in one day in order to insure each family its privacy – as well as considerations related to the deceased's status: kohanim are buried close to the entrance of the cemetery, since traditionally kohanim refrain from entering cemeteries. Certain cemeteries allocate separate sections to different Jewish communities, and to burials with certain common characteristics, such as miscarried fetuses, people whose Jewish lineage is in question, or non-Jews.