HMS-17: Laws Relating to Death I

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

August 13, 2003 – Number 17

Laws Relating to Death I

First of all, Judaism is a pro-life religion. When a person gets ill, the first responsibility is to get well. That is best done by consulting a properly trained physician and following the prescribed medical advice. When a person is sick, it is the responsibility of the friends and family to visit and help him or her feel better. The Mitzvah of “Bikur Holim” is to visit the sick and assist in their return to health. To this end there is a Mi Shebayrach prayer recited at the Torah for a Refuah Shelayma – a complete healing. If possible one should have the Hebrew name of the sick person and the sick person’s mother’s Hebrew name. When a person is in the hospital, it is appropriate to call the Rabbi to let the community know that this person is in need of Bikor Holim.
When there is not longer a hope for a cure for the ill, Judaism still insists that life is sacred and nothing can be done to hasten death. Assisted suicide and active euthanasia are not permitted by Judaism. G-d did not ask us when we should be born and we should not tell G-d when we should die. We can, however, remove that which may be preventing death from occurring. We can remove some life support equipment, stop medications and make the person comfortable while waiting for death. Hospice is an option for Jewish patients. It is also common to ask for a “Do Not Resusitate”(DNR) order for those seriously ill to prevent emergency life support in cases where there is very little life to support. There are mixed opinions about whether one can withhold food and water if the person can no longer eat by themselves. A Rabbi should be consulted if any questions arise in this area.
The moment a person dies, the entire focus of the family becomes the duty to honor the dead. Everything that will be done is to enhance the honor of the deceased. The first responsibility is to wash the body. This is done by a special committee in the community, the Hevra Kadisha (The Holy Committee) which has two teams, one team of men to prepare a male body, and a women’s team to prepare a female body. They wash the body, place it in a shroud (not a suit or dress – a shroud does not have pockets, a reminder that “you can’t take anything with you”) and place the body in a wooden casket. (In Israel, they do not use caskets and the body is buried in the shroud alone). The casket is closed and will not be reopened. The children of the deceased are permitted to help the Hevra Kadisha. A Jewish body is not embalmed.
The body of the deceased may not be mishandled in any way. Autopsies are not permitted in Judaism unless required by civil law. Most state Medical Examiners know how Judaism feels about this and will work with a rabbi to fulfill the requirements of the state and Judaism. Jewish bodies are not given over to medical science for research. Transplants, however ARE PERMITTED by all authorities. Since saving a live is Judaism’s “Prime Directive” it is permitted to allow all organs, including skin and eyes, to be transplanted to help another person. Organs, however, can not be banked, so the need has to be immediate.
A Jewish body is never left alone. Family members or the Hevra Kadisha sit with the body until it is buried. Burial is usually done withing three days of death. Unless a delay will mean that someone from the family will be able to be at the funeral (to honor the dead) or in cases where the body will be shipped to Israel for burial, it can be slightly extended. Consult a Rabbi for details.

Next week: Laws Relating to Death II – The Funeral

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