What to do when someone dies?

A Jewish Guide to Funerals and Mourning Customs

This guide to practical aspects of funeral arrangements and the rituals of mourning was compiled by former rabbis of Beit Emanuel some years ago, but remains a useful overview


When someone close to us dies it is normal for us to experience heightened emotions and stress. At such a time, we may find ourselves called upon to take charge of the affairs of the deceased person, including making arrangements for the funeral. We hope the information which follows will help those who are required to deal with the practicalities of a death by providing guidelines for your assistance.

It is Progressive Jewish practice to respect the differences of mourning customs among families and communities. Jewish tradition teaches that death has its allotted place in the cycle of life and Jewish rituals are intended to support us as we deal with death and loss, enabling us to go forward, to life.

Practical Matters

Contacting the Synagogue

In the event of a death, you should inform the Chevra Kadisha on 011 321 0000 code 4284 or 083 704 3994 and our Synagogue office on 011 783 7117. Out of normal office hours there is information on persons you can contact in the answering service message on the Synagogue telephone.

At the time of death

If a death is expected and happens at home or in hospital, the deceased may have been recently attended by a family physician or a hospital doctor, who can issue a document certifying death and stating the cause of death. In certain cases of unexpected death or accidental death, the police must be informed and there may be a delay in establishing the cause of death.

Whatever the circumstances, in all cases of death, a medical practitioner who has examined the body of a deceased person must complete a certificate of cause of death (BI-1663) and hand the document to the deceased’s closest available next-of-kin, or the funeral undertaker responsible for the funeral arrangements. In South African law, as we understand it, the medical practitioner must seal the part of the document specifying the cause of death in an envelope.

Please note only an authorised Home Affairs officer is allowed to open the sealed envelope.

Registration of death with Home Affairs Department

The Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1992, as amended by later legislation, requires that a death must be notified to a person authorised under Section 4 of the Act to receive such notices.

At the time of writing this document, the persons authorised include funeral undertakers appointed as Section 4 officers. Both the Johannesburg Chevra Kadisha (who deal with burials) and the Funeral Undertakers appointed by Bet David (who deal with cremations) are authorised to receive such notices.

In other words, informing the Chevra Kadisha or Funeral Undertaker of a death is sufficient to meet the requirement to inform Home Affairs.

Burial (cremation) orders

It is important to note that, in terms of the Act, no burial (or cremation) may take place unless authorised by way of a burial order (BI-14).

The Chevra Kadisha and Bet David’s appointed Funeral Undertakers are authorised to receive BI-1663 notices of death, to complete the death registers concerned, and to issue burial orders.

The Chevra Kadisha or Funeral Undertaker will submit the completed BI-1663 to a designated Home Affairs office for registration of the death and issuing of a death certificate which will be sent to the next-of-kin or executor of the estate.


  • Medical practitioner issues certification of cause of death (all cases).
  • Family/executor informs Chevra Kadisha (burial only)
  • Family/executor informs Bet David (cremation only)
  • Chevra Kadisha or Funeral Undertaker registers death and issues burial order.
  • Home Affairs issue death certificate.

In all cases where you require advice on legal procedures relating to a death, please consult the Chevra Kadisha or the Funeral Undertaker.

Jewish Law, Customs and Practices

Who are mourners?

In Jewish law and tradition one mourns for father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband or wife. Whereas one may be deeply saddened by the loss of a relative or friend, in such cases one is not classified as a ‘mourner’ on whom Jewish tradition lays certain duties.

Funeral or Cremation?

The first one has to do is ascertain is whether the deceased will be buried or cremated. This depends on either the wishes of the deceased or the close family members. Sometimes a person will state in their Will or prior to their death that they wish to be cremated, however the final decision must lie with those who have the legal right to act, usually the next-of-kin or appointed executor of the estate.


In the event of a funeral it is important to contact the Chevra Kadisha on 011 321 0000 code 4284 or 083 704 3994 who will make the necessary arrangements to remove the body of the deceased person as soon as possible. This can even be done on a Shabbat as the Chevra Kadisha has non-Jewish staff on stand-by for such eventualities. Having informed the Chevra Kadisha one should then contact the Synagogue office (011 783 7117) immediately. If the office is closed, the answering machine will give out-of-hours contact numbers for staff.

It is important that the time for the funeral is arranged with the knowledge and agreement of one of our Rabbis or person designated to conduct the funeral. Be assured that our Rabbis will make every effort to fit in with your required timing.

It is expected that a funeral should take place as soon as possible except in the case where a mourner has to travel from overseas. No funeral or memorial service for a person who has been, or is to be, cremated can take place on a Shabbat or Festival or in the case where a funeral is delayed pending the results of a post mortem examination by a pathologist.

At a funeral at the West Park Jewish cemetery, the Chevra Kadisha staff will be accustomed to following Jewish practices. For example, mourners are likely to be asked if they wish to perform the ritual of keriah, the tearing of garments as a sign of grief and mourning. If you wish to perform this ritual, the staff will guide you. If you do not wish to perform the ritual, please feel free to politely decline to do so. It is the practice at West Park to draw up a list of people who will act as escorts to accompany the coffin to the grave (‘pallbearers’). The custom is to identify in order of importance (i.e. closest family and friends but excluding the mourners) people who may act in this honorable capacity. Forms for this list can be acquired from the Chevra Kadisha office at the cemetery just prior to the funeral. Progressive Jewish practice permits women to act as escorts to the coffin, if they wish to, and if the family consent.

From time to time (for example, in the event of a relative who has travelled far to be at the funeral and may not have seen the deceased for some time) we receive a request that someone view the body before burial. Although displaying bodies in coffins has become common in some places in recent times, it goes strongly against Jewish tradition. In the Jewish view of things, it dishonours the dead person. The Chevra Kadisha may permit a viewing by an individual in exceptional circumstances, but those making such a request should understand that they are likely to cause great offence in doing so, even among members of their family.


The practice of cremating a body is contrary to the Jewish tradition. The only recorded Biblical instances of bodies being burned was as a form of punishment. This reflects the prevailing view of tradition that cremation negates the mitzvah of honouring the dead. Many in the Jewish community regard those who choose cremation as having cut themselves off from Jewish tradition.

In recognising the right of individuals to exercise responsible personal autonomy, Progressive Rabbis generally do not decline requests to officiate at some form of memorial service for a person who has elected to be cremated. Having accepted this fact, it is however recognised in Progressive Jewish communities and among Progressive Rabbis that cremation presents problems over and above the ‘tradition versus freedom of choice’ issue.

In the event of a request for cremation DO NOT contact the Chevra Kadisha but, as in the case of a funeral, please contact the Synagogue office. Bet David has a long-standing association with an experienced funeral undertaker who will, if you wish, arrange for the removal of the body and for cremation. Unlike in the case of a funeral, certain documents have to be filled in at the Synagogue office where you will be asked to show the deceased’s ID book and the death notice.

Memorial services for a person who has been cremated are held in our Synagogue. We do not conduct services at a crematoria.

Services for Funeral or Cremation

It is helpful to the Rabbi to be introduced to the principal mourners prior to the funeral or memorial service and to be given the full Hebrew name of the deceased, if known. The order of service for both a funeral and a memorial service are similar. The services are relatively brief and consist mainly of psalms and memorial prayers appropriate to the occasion. It is customary to conclude the service with the reciting of the kaddish, which is usually recited by the mourners, but may be led by someone else, including the service leader or Rabbi. Progressive Judaism does not exclude women from reciting kaddish. In the event that the mourners feel unable to recite the kaddish, then the Rabbi or another elected person will perform the mitzvah.

A key part of the service is a hesped (eulogy, a tribute to the deceased) which is usually, but not necessarily, delivered by the Rabbi. It may be delivered by a family member or close friend. In this case, it is recommended that the family give the Rabbi sufficient information that the Rabbi may deliver the eulogy, in the event that family members find the service too emotional and feel unable to speak.

At the conclusion of a funeral at the cemetery, the mourners will be invited pass through two lines of persons attending the funeral and then to stand in line so that those attending may pay their respects and offer condolences.

The mourners will be guided and helped before, during and after the service, whether it be a funeral or memorial service.


Today, many Jews do not observe all the traditional mourning customs. No-one should feel pressured to do so. However, these customs have proved helpful to many people in coping with grief and loss and mourners should consider following them if it will assist them.

It is the custom to mourn initially for seven days, hence the term ‘sitting shivah’ – shivah meaning ‘seven’. During the seven days the mourners are not expected to leave their home and family and friends visit them, both to comfort them and to recite the morning and evening services. Prayers usually take place in the home of the deceased. If the residence of the deceased or the mourners is not conducive to prayers, the Synagogue premises may be used. The purpose of the shivah is to give comfort and support to mourners. Today, fewer and fewer people are observing the full seven days and the most common custom is for prayers to be recited in the home for one evening.

It is important that the mourners follow practices with which they feel most comfortable. One should not feel pressured by other people’s beliefs as to what is right and wrong.

The custom is to begin the period of shivah on the day of the funeral and conclude on the seventh day, when just one hour of mourning is deemed to be sufficient. In the seven days the shabbat is counted as one of the days, however no outward mourning rituals are observed and one would, therefore, attend services in the synagogue. No prayer service is held on Saturday evening in the home.

In the event of a death occurring prior to a Jewish festival, providing one can sit shivah for one hour before the festival then the festival cancels the whole seven days. If a funeral takes place during a festival then the shivah is delayed until after the festival. In this event one should consult the Rabbi regarding how many days one observes.

Following the seven days of mourning, there is a further period of mourning, called the sheloshim (meaning ‘thirty’), which includes the seven days, when a form of semi-mourning is observed. In the main, it is not seen as proper for mourners to participate in any form of personal enjoyment, either secular or sacred. Following the death of a parent, a whole year is set aside for the daily recitation of the kaddish. Although it is referred to as a ‘year’, in fact it is only eleven months, and here again, it is customary not to participate in personal enjoyment and entertainment.

House of Mourning

Immediately on returning to the house of mourning one lights a Yahrzeit (memorial) candle and continues to do so for the full seven days. In some communities there is a custom that the mourners partake of a symbolic ‘meal of mourning’ which includes foods which are round in appearance, e.g. hard-boiled eggs, bagels and fish balls. This symbolises the ‘cycle of life’. The meal is prepared and served by others, not by the mourners themselves.

The practice of visiting mourners, bringing food to a house of mourning and assisting mourners with routine tasks such as shopping or housework is to be commended and encouraged throughout the shivah period.

In the room where prayers are being held, there is a custom to cover any mirrors. Although the origin of this practice may be found in superstition, we advise that families follow it as there are well-founded psychological reasons for doing this. It is not necessary to cover pictures or to move them, or turn them to face the wall. Photographs need not be removed. If possible, a small table should be positioned by the north wall. On this table should be placed the lighted yahrzeit (memorial) candle. No blessing is recited. Some families also place two unlit candles (in normal candlesticks) on the same table, which may be lit, or left unlit. If these are lit, it is done just prior to the commencement of the prayers (the origin and significance of this practice is unknown). No blessing is recited.

It is advisable that the door to the house of mourning is both accessible and open. Fixed line telephones should be disconnected for the duration of the prayers and cell phones turned off. The Rabbi, or reader, will provide the necessary prayer books and all present, women included, will be invited to join the service. Progressive Jewish practice does not segregate the sexes. At the conclusion of the service the mourners will be invited to recitekaddish. Following this, the mourners should take a (low) seat in a position convenient for those present to pay their respects.

There is no rigid custom regarding refreshments in the house of mourning, other than the Jewish tradition of being hospitable. It should be stressed that such refreshments are usually provided by those who come to comfort the mourners. It is not expected for the mourners to busy themselves in this way.

Attendance at services

Most Progressive Jews do not attend Synagogue on a daily basis. The vast majority, however, will attend services on the Shabbat during the shivah period. At these services, the name of the deceased will be mentioned prior to the recital of the kaddish by the congregation.


It is a long-established Jewish practice to erect a memorial at some time following a burial. The time chosen for the placing of the tombstone varies. Most tombstones are put in place from one month after burial to eleven months after burial. In South Africa, there is an added factor to be considered: many family members may live overseas.

In order to commemorate a person who was cremated, a ‘Wall of Remembrance’ has been built at West Park Cemetery. The ashes of the deceased are sealed into a niche in the wall and a dedicatory plaque seals the niche.

The Rabbis, or an experienced lay reader, will conduct a service of consecration for tombstones and for the placing of ashes in the Wall of Remembrance.

Many former members of the community have been remembered by the placing of a leaf on the Tree of Life in the Synagogue foyer. Please consult the office if you would like to have a leaf added to the Tree of Life. It is customary to offer a donation to the Synagogue when a leaf is commissioned.


Where a member of Bet David has been bereaved, the Synagogue office will, if requested, notify the member(s) of the Hebrew calendar anniversary of the death (Yahrzeit). Many people follow the practice of attending Shabbat services during the week of the Yahrzeit.

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