Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Dealing with death

The death of someone close is one of the most traumatic experiences that we all have to face at some time in our lives. Often the response is not entirely appropriate. Friends try to offer comfort. Some take tranquilizers and try to continue with life "as normal". The "life must go on" philosophy.

The Jewish mourning process provides a model of what may be one of the healthiest ways of dealing with death. Many psychologists have pointed to this process because it correlates closely with the actual stages of grief.

The Funeral.

Burial takes place using a standard simple coffin. Usually within 24 hours. The mourners - close family members - wear old clothes to the funeral. Clothes are torn before the burial - usually the shirt over the heart. There are no flowers. Male mourners say Kaddish. Mourners are wished a long life. After the funeral the neighbours (or friends and family) provide a meal for the mourners.


Most people have heard of saying Kaddish. Kaddish is a prayer that begins at the funeral and continues at each daily service for 11 months. Written in Aramaic, the words "Yitgadal veYitkadash Sme Raba" translate to "May His Great Name be magnified and Sanctified". There is no reference to death. Allan Ginsberg, a poet of the Beat generation used this for one of his poems. He referred to Kaddish as a mantra. The purpose of Kaddish is in fact to elevate the soul. Kaddish is usually said by sons for a parent. It can only be said in a minyan a quorum of ten Jewish men.


We do not try to cheer up or comfort the mourners. They return from the funeral to the house of mourning where they sit "shiva" (seven) for seven days. Mourners sit on low chairs to signify how low they feel. Mirrors and paintings are covered and no music is allowed. Work should be avoided if at all possible. Visitors are not supposed to ask how they are. Mourners are left to experience their grief. Prohibitions include cutting of hair, shaving, and sex. On the seventh day, the mourners should get up and walk away from the house of mourning, signifying the end of this very intense stage of mourning. A 24 hour candle is burnt throughout this period. The flame of the candle represents the soul and the life of the deceased.


Once "shiva" is over, mourning continues for the "shloshim" (thirty). Work is resumed, but cutting of hair, buying new items such as clothes or furniture are not allowed. Entertainment especially music - and visiting others are also not allowed. Gifts should not be presented to mourners, though bringing food is allowed. The "shloshim" ends on the thirtieth day after death.

The Year

For parents, mourning parents continues. For any one else it has now ended. The mourning period for parents continues until a year after death. The mourning restrictions are much less severe, but typically entertainment should be avoided. Mourners may attend a wedding but should avoid the music and dancing.

Memory and acceptance

The death is commemorated every year on the date of death. A 24 hour candle is lit, and Kaddish is said once more. Honouring of parents continues after death. Over the course of the mourning period the grief fades and turns towards acceptance. Acceptance and memory. The Jewish festivals each contain a portion where the dead are remembered. The memory of the deceased is perpetuated by giving charity in their name.

Many people experience a loss and try to carry on with life as normal. Grief is suppressed. Mourning is considered to be out of step with the 21st century. Grief and mourning are a very necessary part of experiencing a loss. It is part of helping us to adjust to the new status quo, to achieve a level of acceptance and to move on

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