The Honor of the Dead
The Jewish community and the entire world recently lost living Torahs, Rav Dovid Feinstein and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. This week’s Torah reading Chayei Sarah discusses the first ever Jewish burial and Avaraham’s care for his deceased wife, Sarah. I believe that it is appropriate to discuss the mitzvah of burial and respect for the deceased. The earliest mention of burial is found in Genesis, when G-d speaks to Adam: “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground, from which you were taken – For you are dust, and to dust shall you return.” Just as the soul returns to its source in heaven, so the body is returned to its origins in the earth.
From the moment of death until this process is complete the body must be treated with the utmost respect. Even regarding a criminal who has been sentenced to death, the Torah commands us:
You shall not leave his body overnight on the gallows, rather you shall surely bury him on that day, for a hanging person is a curse of God, and you shall not contaminate your land, which God, your God, gives you as an inheritance.
The commentaries explain that since a human being is created in the “image of G-d” and is the only being similar to God, treating his corpse with disrespect is a disgrace to G-d Himself. The above verse obligates us to bury the body promptly and to treat the body with the utmost respect
Based on this verse, the Talmud rules that one may only delay the burial if it will enhance the honor of the deceased. If, for example, the delay was necessary to obtain something for the funeral, or to enable relatives to attend the funeral, then it is permissible. In addition, it is prohibited to desecrate the body or to derive any benefit from the deceased. The body must be kept intact for burial and the entire body must be buried; therefore, cremation, embalming and autopsies are generally all forbidden by Jewish law. Some exceptions apply, in accordance with the principle that saving a life overrides almost all other commandments. Therefore, in a situation where a life may be saved by performing an autopsy, if a contagious disease is suspected, for example, or to obtain an organ for a specific patient who is dying, it is permitted. In all cases a competent Rabbi should, of course, be consulted.
Consistent with this attitude of respect, the body is washed in a specific way known as tahara, purity, and is never left alone, from the moment of death until the burial (shmirah – guarding). After the taharah the body is wrapped in plain, white cloth shrouds (tachrichin) or in a tallis, prayer shawl. (The tallis is rendered unsuitable for fulfillment of a mitzvah as an indication that the deceased is no longer obligated in the mitzvot).
Jewish tradition requires that the body be buried in such a way that it can decompose and “return to the earth” as quickly as possible. A plain wooden coffin is most often used; coffins made of metal, concrete or impervious materials are prohibited. In Israel, it is customary to bury the deceased without any coffin at all. Outside of Israel, it is the widespread custom to place some soil from the Land of Israel inside the coffin. The deceased should be buried in ground that is consecrated for the sake of burial, in a place where fellow Jews are also buried. It is also customary for people attending the funeral to take turns placing some soil in the grave, to personally honor the deceased by fulfilling the mitzvah of burial.
Psalms and Kaddish (see below) are recited at the burial accompanied by the beautiful “E-l maleh rachamim” prayer:
O G-d, full of mercy, Who dwells on high, grant proper rest on the wings of the Divine Presence – in the lofty levels of the holy and pure ones, who shine like the glow of the firmament – for the soul of (name of the deceased) son or daughter of (name of the deceased’s father). May his/her resting place be in the Garden of Eden – therefore may the Master of mercy shelter him/her in the shelter of His wings for eternity; and may He bind his/her soul in the Bond of Life. G-d is his/her heritage; and may he/she repose in peace on his/her resting place. Now let us respond: Amen.
It is appropriate for a Rabbi or a relative to eulogize the deceased before the burial. The primary reason for the eulogy (hesped) is to honor the deceased by expressing our admiration and love and the depth of our loss by extolling the virtues of the deceased. The eulogy is also meant to move people to tears in mourning for the deceased. Since the main reason for the eulogy is to honor the person who died, if he or she requested that there be no eulogy, there wishes should be respected. In addition to its obvious focus on the one who died, the eulogy also honors the survivors and inspires others to emulate the good deeds of the deceased. The Code of Jewish Law writes:
It is a great mitzvah to appropriately eulogize the deceased. It is correct to raise one’s voice, say things that will break people’s hearts in order to increase the weeping and to speak in praise of the deceased. One should not, however, exaggerate the praise excessively; rather, one should mention the positive characteristics of the deceased and embellish them slightly.