As a religion primarily focused on life, Judaism has a set way to cope with death. Many passages in the Bible and the Talmud talk about living well—and suggest ways to make other people’s lives better.
Yet Judaism still provides a way for mourners to transition through the stages of grief. Prayers, compassion, and rituals serve as a guide through tragic times.
Note: If you'd like some help navigating the entire complicated process of losing a loved one, check out our post-loss checklist.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- 1. Mourner’s Kaddish
- 2. El Maleh Rachamim (Jewish Prayer of the Dead)
- 3. Psalm 90
- 4. Life Is A Journey by Alvin Fine
- 5. Psalm 23
- 6. What Is Man?
- 7. Psalm 121
- 8. We Remember Them
- 9. Blessing of the Mourners
- 10. When All That’s Left Is Love by Rabbi Maller
Even as a religion passed down by word of mouth, many prayers have survived. These are like poetry, intending to exalt God and provide hope to mourners at a Jewish funeral.
COVID-19 tip: If you chose to use a virtual Jewish funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still recite prayers with your online guests. Speak with your planning team, ensure you have the right mics and speakers, and rehearse the ceremony.
Kaddish prayers are a cornerstone of Judaism. They provide an opportunity for mourners to praise God’s name and acknowledge their pain. The term comes from an Aramaic word which means ‘holy.’ This praise is obvious in an excerpt of the prayer:
“May His great name be kept magnified and sanctified in the world that is to be created anew, where He will revive the dead, and raise them up to eternal life; and rebuild the city of Jerusalem; and establish His Temple in its midst; and uproot alien worship from the earth and restore the worship of Heaven to its place. May the Holy One, blessed be He, reign in His sovereignty and glory, during your life ring your days.”
The Kaddish provides hope. In the Jewish faith, God will resurrect the righteous to experience eternal life. This allows mourners to believe that they will see their loved ones again. The Kaddish also serves as a guide through many complex stages of grief. One of the issues with a Western approach to grief is speed.
Grief makes people uncomfortable. It’s hard to cope with. The bereaved 'should' sweep all their emotions under the rug as soon as possible. It’s even a subject of praise. Mentioning how ‘strong’ someone is, or how ‘well they’re holding up’ is common in Western culture.
This can make someone feel like everyone has forgotten the deceased. They may feel that they’re expected to move on as if nothing happened. In Judaism, this isn’t the case. When a close relative passes away, a Kaddish is recited by mourners for eleven months. This allows a slow transition back into the ordinary world.
The phrase ‘el maleh rachamim’ translates to ‘God full of compassion'. Indeed, this prayer is a call to God’s compassionate nature. In Jewish thought, souls go to paradise after death.
This prayer pleads with God to give them rest and contentment in the next world. Asking God to have mercy is a tradition in the Jewish faith. An excerpt from the prayer demonstrates this:
“Oh God, full of compassion, who dwells on high, grant true rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence, in the exalted spheres of the holy and pure … Therefore, may the All-Merciful One shelter him with the cover of His wings forever, and bind his soul in the bond of life. The Lord is his heritage, may he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.”
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The Psalms are a cornerstone of the Jewish liturgy and faith. They express a broad range of emotions. From anger with God to heart-stopping sorrow, to endless joy, the Psalms are a form of human expression. The extent of emotions they discuss is why they are commonly used in funerals.
“My protector, You are our abode, one generation to the next, Since before the mountains came to birth, before the birth pangs of the land and world. From eternity to eternity, You are divine. Truly, a thousand years are in your eyes like yesterday--so quickly does it pass--or like the watchman’s nighttime post. You pour upon them sleep, they sleep … At dawn, life blossoms and renews itself; at dusk, it withers and dries up.”
King David, a figure who experienced much personal loss, is said to have written many of these Psalms.
Poetry has been a vehicle of expression for millennia. It preserves emotions, history, and cultural elements. Without poems, many parts of our history would be lost. Judaism relies on poetry, as shown by the Psalms. This excerpt from a funeral poem illustrates the cyclical nature of life.
“Birth is a beginning and death a destination; / But life is a journey. / A going, a growing from stage to stage: / From childhood to maturity and youth to old age. / From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing; / From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom.”
The goal of attaining the wisdom to pass on to others is present in this poem.
This Psalm is common in both Christian and Jewish services. It provides comfort and emphasizes reliance on God. It also expresses the hope that the deceased will “abide in the house of the Lord forever.”
"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He has me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside the still waters. He revives my soul; He guides me on paths of righteousness for His glory. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, For you are with me ... Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, And I shall abide in the house of the Lord forever.
This prayer is composed of many Psalms pieced together. As a harmonious whole, it talks about how short life is. The fleeting nature of life is a cornerstone of Judaism. Since life is so short, shouldn’t we make the most of it by honoring God and doing good to others?
"0 Lord, what is man that You regard him, or the son of man that You take account of him? Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow … So teach us to treasure our days that we may get a wise heart. Observe the good man, and behold the upright, for there is immortality for the man of peace. Surely God will ransom my soul from the grave; He will gladly accept me … The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it."
Another Psalm, this one talks about God’s role as a guardian. It affirms God was watching out for the deceased. It states that God is in control with a plan that spans the ages.
"… If I raise my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from ADONAI, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip — your guardian is not asleep. No, the guardian of Isra’el never slumbers or sleeps. ADONAI is your guardian; at your right hand. ADONAI provides you with shade —the sun can’t strike you during the day or even the moon at night.”
This prayer is a formal performance. It's structured as a back-and-forth dialogue between a synagogue leader and a congregation. This prayer requires community participation.
“IN THE RISING of the sun, and in it's going down, we remember them. From the moment I wake till I fall asleep, all that I do is remember them. In the blowing of the wind and the chill of winter, we remember them. On the frigid days of winter and the moments I breathe the cold air, I warm myself with their embrace and remember them. In the opening of buds and the rebirth of spring, we remember them. As the days grow longer and the outside becomes warmer, I am more awake and I remember them.”
One of the key features of a Jewish funeral is ensuring that mourners receive support. This blessing reminds mourners that they aren’t alone. Their grief doesn't exclude them from the community. As a gentle tradition of reminder, it serves its purpose.
"Those who are worn out and crushed by this mourning, let your hearts consider this. This is the path that has existed from the time of creation and will exist forever. Many have drunk from it and many will yet drink. As was the first meal, so shall be the last. May the master of comfort you. Blessed are those who comfort the mourners."
In all cultures, there’s talk of living like the deceased would have wanted. Sometimes, it’s the only way to pick up the pieces and move on from the tragedy. This poem talks about how the deceased want their loved ones to mourn them.
"When I die / If you need to weep / Cry for someone / Walking the street beside you. / You can love me most by letting / Hands touch hands, and / Souls touch souls. / You can love me most by / Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and / Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness). / You can love me most by /Letting me live in your eyes / And not on your mind."
The Circle of Life
Judaism’s focus on the circle of life is comforting. Life begins, life ends, and it’s all part of the world. Judaism doesn’t despair and wish the world was different. Rather, it focuses on the hope of resurrection, eternal life, and reuniting with loved ones.
If you're looking for more ways to remember your loved one after they die, consider what you'd do with their cremated remains. For example, you can turn your loved one's ashes into diamonds or purchase a custom urn shaped like their favorite object.