Jewish law is rich with tradition concerning death and burial. While many traditions stem from Biblical laws, they all have a backbone of specific principles. A human being is equated with a Torah scroll that is impaired and can no longer be used at religious services. While the ancient scroll no longer serves any useful ritual purpose, it is revered for the exalted function it once filled. Man is created in the image of God, and, although the pulse of life is no more, the human form must be respected for having once embodied the spirit of God and for the character and the personality it housed. (Maurice Lamm 3) Jewish funeral and mourning rituals are centered around respect for the dead. The body is buried as soon as possible, so the soul can be returned to God. Leaving the body to linger in the land of the living would bring great shame to the deceased. All rituals are performed with Kivod Ha-met, or respect for the dead, in mind (Joshua Elkin). The body is not cremated, but left to decay in a natural process. The body is a gift from God, we are expected to take care of it and return it to God in the best condition possible. Because of this burial must be natural, using no embalming methods, fancy clothes or expensive coffins, and staying away from autopsies. Traditional Jewish funeral and burial rituals stem form the importance of honoring the dead and the process of life and death.
When a member of the Jewish community dies, it is considered very honorable to take care of the body of the deceased and perform the necessary rituals. Doing this honors not only the person who performs the rituals, but the deceased as well. The responsibility of the burial and funeral falls on the immediate kin of the person who is dying. The Biblical basis for this can be found in the story of Abraham's death in Genesis 25:9, "His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite"(NIV). The mourners in the Jewish tradition are referred to as Onenim, plural for Onen. There are seven relationships that are considered Onen: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister and husband or wife. Another relative or the next of kin may also take charge of the funeral or burial if one of these seven relations are not present. If there are no kin to take care of the body of the deceased, the dead person is called a met mitzvah. This means abandoned corpse. The met mitzvah becomes the responsibility of the community and the first Jew to find the corpse takes on the responsibility and honor of preparing the body for burial, even if this means abandoning important tasks in his own life (Lamm 52). Another responsibility of the family is to designate a shomer, or watcher. The shomer stays with the body after death and before burial. Although usually a family member or close friend, the shomer can also be someone outside the family chosen to sit with the deceased. The original role of the shomer was to honor the deceased by protecting him from bugs and rodents that might defile the body. In modern times refrigeration eliminates the need for this type of perfection. The shomer must still be responsible for sitting up with the body to guard it through the night and read from the book of Psalms (Lamm 5). Honoring the deceased is extremely important in the Jewish community. If a Jewish person sees a funeral procession he should always interrupt what he is doing, even if that is something as important as studying the Torah, and escort the body to the burial. This is considered gemillat chesed shel emet, an act of genuine, selfless kindness (Lamm 51).
As stated before Jewish law is firm in honoring the body, but also honoring the natural process of life and death. Ecclesiastes 5:15-16 reads, Naked a man comes from his mother's womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. This too is a grievous evil: As...
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