Death and Mourning

Biblical Background on Death and Mourning

Death is never far from the Biblical stories. The first recorded death in the Bible is not that of someone aging gracefully and dying in their sleep. Instead, death comes by way of a murder in the famous story of Cain and Abel: “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). In fact, death by murder figures prominently in the Bible’s first few chapters. Cain in turn complains that “whoever finds me will kill me” (Genesis 4:14), while Lamech boasts of his disproportionate deeds to his two wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.” How and if Adam and Eve mourned for Abel is not said; Lamech celebrated his murder rather than mourning it. Murder figures also in the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not murder,” in the older translations) and in other laws of the Torah.

Death can also be a result of God’s judgment. “In the day that you eat of it,” God warns Adam and Eve, referring to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). In the days of Noah, God declares, “For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die.” (Genesis 6:17).

But “normal” death, the kind most of us experience, is also front and center in the Bible. The death of Adam’s descendants is duly recorded, albeit after extremely long life spans (e.g., “Thus all the days of Enosh were 905 years, and he died,” Genesis 5:11.)  So are the deaths of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel. And that is where we find the first mourning in Scripture: “And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Genesis 23:2).

We likewise find mention of mourning in the story of Esau and Jacob and the story of Joseph (Genesis 27:41; 37:34-35; 50:10). Though we are given few details, we do learn that Joseph mourned seven days for his father Jacob, as is done today. “Days” of mourning are also mentioned with Esau (Genesis 27:41)  and Moses (Deuteronomy 34:8). The practice of burial is the normal one in the Bible, first mentioned in Genesis 15:15 (God to Abraham): “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age”, and frequently after that.

Additional customs surface in the biblical accounts: fasting for Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:12); for the king’s decree commanding Jews to be killed, (Esther 4:3); tearing clothes and putting on sackcloth (a rough, black cloth) for Avner (2 Samuel 3:31); ; avoiding grooming —“Do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead” (2 Samuel 14:2).

Many of these customs appear in one form or another in modern times.

We should note that there are hints in the Tanakh that death is not necessarily final. Elisha the prophet raised a child from the dead (though presumably he died much later in life):

When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm.

Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.

Then he summoned Gehazi and said, “Call this Shunammite [a woman from the town of Shunem].” So he called her. And when she came to him, he said, “Pick up your son.” She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground. Then she picked up her son and went out. (2 Kings 4:32-37)

This theme will reappear in the New Testament (see below).

Significance of Death and Mourning for Jewish People

Mourning customs, for Jews and other people, are meant to ease the loneliness of loss through community involvement).  This is done through rituals which guide the mourners during a time when thoughts and feelings may be confusing or may vary widely moment to moment. Ritual provides a comforting structure and allows the mourning to proceed along established lines, while the surrounding community acts as a support group.

Death and Mourning Customs and Traditions

Not all Jews choose to follow the many traditions surrounding death and burial. However, since those traditions exist to provide support for those who have lost a loved one, they are often valued by even non-traditional Jews.

A chevra kadisha (literally, “holy society,” but meaning a burial society) prepares the body of the deceased. The corpse is ritually cleansed in a process known as tahara (“purification”). For tahara, men handle males while women handle females, and special prayers are recited. In fact, as a mark of respect, the body is never left alone between death and burial, with someone continually keeping ritual watch, or shemirah. The body is then dressed in a shroud, or in regular clothes, and draped (for men) with a tallit or prayer shawl.

Sometimes members of a chevra kadisha will fast on the date of Adar 7 (on the Jewish calendar), in order to make atonement for any disrespect that has been inadvertently shown to the deceased in their care.

Jews do not traditionally have an open viewing of the casket, though there are exceptions.

At the funeral, garments will be ritually torn in a ceremony known as kriah, though this is not always observed by less traditional Jews. The ceremony itself includes the prayer El Maleh Rachamim, meaning “God, full of compassion.” Mourners recite selected psalms, and someone will deliver a eulogy or hesped. The Mourner’s Kaddish will also be recited. Popularly thought of as a “prayer for the dead,” it is actually an extended praise of God. Notice that the emphasis in the funeral liturgy is on God, His compassion, and His holiness. God is the one who gives and takes life, the liturgy tells us, and we can rest in His wisdom and providence. As the casket is lowered into the ground, mourners take turns in placing a shovelful of dirt into the grave. They are also the first to leave following the ceremony.

Some Jews choose cremation, though this is actually forbidden by tradition, although not specifically prohibited in Jewish law. However, cremation has long been considered to be a defilement of the corpse, and for many it brings to mind the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism prohibit cremation, while Reform discourages but does not prohibit it. Autopsies are also traditionally forbidden.

Burial usually takes place in a Jewish cemetery, which also makes allowance for burying non-Jewish spouses. In Colma, California, one can visit the grave of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, buried in a Jewish cemetery alongside his Jewish wife.

It is not customary to give flowers, but rather donations to charity, which can include planting trees in Israel in memory of a loved one. This is accomplished through a donation to the Jewish National Fund.

The seven days following the funeral are known as the shiva, simply meaning “seven”—though again, some Jews do not adhere to tradition and might observe only a few days, or none at all. Sitting shiva, as it is known, calls for the mourners to remain at home, sitting on low stools, with mirrors covered , as if to say  we do not need to be concerned about our appearance during this time. Shiva is only observed for close relatives: parents, siblings, children, and a spouse. Traditional Jews will hold prayer services at the home each day. It is customary also to bring dishes of food, meant to help sustain the family at a time when they will find it difficult to prepare their own meals. The bereaved will observe other acts of mourning: only basic bathing, no leather shoes, no marital relations, no laundry to be done. For reasons of financial need, those who have to return to work may do so after only three days.

Visitors are meant to enter in silence and not to speak until the mourner says something first. This is meant to avoid inappropriate talk and to allow the mourner to set the tone for any remarks. Sitting quietly is also appropriate.

Following the shiva comes sheloshim, “thirty” days of mourning. At this time the bereaved resumes normal activities but avoids pleasurable ones. If the bereaved is mourning for a parent, eleven months of aveilut (“mourning”) follows, during which the mourner recites Kaddish, mentioned above, each day. Some people place great value on “having someone to say Kaddish for me” when they are gone.

Frequently the tombstone is unveiled in a special ceremony one year following burial. The inscriptions on the headstone will usually begin with “Here lies buried” in Hebrew, followed by the name of the deceased in Hebrew, their dates of birth and death (often using Hebrew letters, each of which has a numerical value), and ending with an abbreviation of 1 Samuel 25:29: “May his soul be bound up in the bundle of the living,” or “in the bond of eternal life.” For someone who was a kohen, or priest, the special symbol of the priestly benediction may be engraved, looking like this:

It is no coincidence that Spock’s Vulcan greeting on Star Trek looks like one of these hands; actor Leonard Nimoy explained that he derived it from his Jewish upbringing!

Thereafter, the bereaved observes the yahrzeit, or anniversary of death each year, and special yahrzeit candles are lit which burn for twenty-four hours. In addition, there are memorial services known as yizkor (“may God remember”) at which the synagogue or congregation recites prayers in remembrance of the departed.

Finally, visitors to the gravesite often leave a small pebble on top of the headstone to indicate that there has been a visitor—a comfort to others who come and a reminder that mourning is a community, not merely an individual, matter.

Death and Mourning in the New Testament

Death and mourning are no less prominent in the New Testament than in the Tanakh. However, the coming of Jesus as the Messiah marks a major difference: through him, death is ultimately abolished. Above we saw a hint that death may not be final when the prophet Elisha raised a child from death. Jesus acted similarly, as seen in Luke 7:11-17:

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.

Another account is found in John 4:46-54. But the most poignant encounter of Jesus with the reality of death occurs in John 11:1-45, and it is a story worth reading in full:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him [Jesus], saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Ioudaioi [a term meaning Judeans or the Judean leadership; not as often translated, “Jews”] were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”

Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Ioudaioi had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.

So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Ioudaioi who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Ioudaioi who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus wept.

So the Ioudaioi said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Ioudaioi therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.

In this account, we see mourning and weeping. We also see a hope, for in the midst of  sorrow, Jesus pronounces one of his most well-known sayings, declaring himself to be “the resurrection and the life” and in a startling remark, claims that those who believe in him will never die. And then, of course, the story recounts the bringing of Lazarus alive out of the tomb (in those days, typically a niche over the entrance of which a stone was placed). The hint offered in the story of Elisha is here raised to a new level.

Yet the most important encounter of Jesus with death occurs after he has been crucified and buried. All four gospels recount the raising of Jesus from death, and in a different way than the Shunammite’s son or the son of the widow of Nain or even Lazarus—all of whom we presume died a natural death in their old age. Jesus rises from death never to die again, the first example of the resurrection in which all will participate. The New Testament announces that those who place their faith in Jesus will rise from the dead into eternal life. “The last enemy to be destroyed,” writes Paul, “is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

And it is destroyed by Yeshua’s resurrection. So important is the resurrection that Paul has this to say: “If in Messiah we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Messiah has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:19-20). In other words, if Jesus has not been raised from death, all his followers are pitiable, deluded fools.

But, he goes on, the fact is that he has been raised from death. That is why Paul can raise the triumphant cry, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). (For historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, see “Related Articles” below.)

And that is why in the final book of the New Testament, John can write of those who follow Yeshua: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). No more death, no more funerals, no more sitting shiva, no more saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. For those who have put their faith in Yeshua, the thread of death that runs from Abel’s murder to our own day will someday be rewoven into life everlasting.

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