A Practical Guide to Preparing For Death
by Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, Temple Israel Community Center, Teaneck, NJ
No one likes to think about dying. Even less does anyone want to think about the high cost of dying, or any of the other "end-of-life" issues.
We need to face these issues, nevertheless. It is important for you and your family to take steps that may ease some emotional pain in the future. To do so is one of the greatest gifts you can leave to your loved ones.
The first thing you need to do is to prepare a living will and a health care proxy. The living will details what kind of medical care you want — and do not want — if ever you are in a situation in which you cannot speak for yourself. The health care proxy appoints someone to speak for you in those situations not covered by the living will. There are numerous living wills available, but few take into consideration Jewish law. That is why rabbis of all streams have available a living will and a health care proxy that conforms to the standards and practices of the movements to which they are affiliated. You should make an appointment with your rabbi as soon as
possible to go over these documents.
The second suggestion is to prepare a sheet for each person in the household with some basic information that will be needed by survivor(s) after a death. At a minimum, this sheet should include:
1. Full secular name.
2. The full names of the parents, including the mother's maiden name
3. Full Hebrew name, including the Hebrew name of father and mother.
4. For men, whether one is a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael.
5. The names of all living relatives (including relationships) and of any deceased siblings, spouses and/or children.
6. Date of birth and location of birth certificate for each household member.
7. Place of birth.
8. In cases of pre-paid funerals, the location of all the paperwork.
9. Cemetery plot information, as well as where the deed is located.
10. The name and phone number of the funeral home of your choice.
11. Your rabbi's name and phone numbers, or that of another rabbi you wish to officiate if other than your congregational rabbi.
12. Military service and where the discharge papers are kept.
13. Social Security number and where that card is kept.
14. Location of the will and the attorney's name and telephone number.
15. The life insurance agent's name and telephone number, as well as the policy numbers and where the policies are kept.
16. Location of any safe deposit boxes, where the key for each is kept, and who has access.
17. Bank account numbers — checking and savings — and where these are kept.
18. Securities information, brokers' names and telephone numbers, and where the securities are kept.
19. Information regarding real estate owned (including apartments); how the title is held; who holds the mortgage, if any, and what the monthly payments are.
20. A list of regularly scheduled bills for which the individual is responsible and the amounts.
Some of you may say, "My spouse already knows all of this, so I don't have to make such a list." There are a number of reasons why this is the wrong response. One obvious reason is that a spouse may be so bereft after a death as to not be thinking clearly. Another is that, God forbid, both spouses die in an accident, or both die within a short time of each other, or the surviving spouse is incapacitated, and matters are left to others who were never privy to the information.
Keep these information sheets in a place easily accessible by everyone in the household. You might also want to give your synagogue office a copy of your answers to items 1 through 11 (the non-financial items). Also consider reviewing and updating the information sheets at least once each year.
Items No. 8-11 above refer to the third suggestion: Prepare your own funerals in advance. For one thing, prepaid funerals lock in the price, which is already high enough. For another, they take a heavy burden off the shoulders of those you leave behind. All of the local funeral homes will work with you to set up prepaid funerals.
Regarding the funeral and burial, there are some things that you should know before arranging a pre-paid funeral (or any other, for that matter). Discuss these with your rabbi to determine which items apply to your tradition:
1. Traditional Jewish practice requires that the deceased not be left alone prior to burial. Hospitals should be requested to avoid disturbing the remains until the arrival of a shomer (guardian). While it is preferable that shomrim be members of the family, friends of the deceased, or members of the congregation, the funeral home will arrange for shomrim if that is your choice. Shomrim sit with the deceased in eight-hour shifts.
2. Traditional Jewish practice requires both taharah and tachrichim, which mean a ritual washing of the deceased and dressing of him and her in proper burial shrouds. Judaism of all varieties does not look kindly on burying people in clothes, especially if those clothes are in good condition and can be used by someone else. In addition to tachrichim, a Jewish male is customarily buried wearing a kipah and his own talit. Women who own talitot may also be buried wearing them. One of the tzitzit on the talit is cut to render the garment unusable.
3. To avoid interference with the natural process of "returning to the earth," Jewish tradition requires that an aron (casket) be made entirely of wood. Go with the very simple, very plain aron. Fancy caskets are very expensive and completely unnecessary.
4. "Returning to the earth," in fact, is the whole point of a Jewish funeral. As Genesis 3:19 states, "For you are dust, and to dust shall you return." Thus, traditional Jewish practice discourages burial in above-ground crypts. There are rabbis who will officiate at a mausoleum entombment; there are many others who will not. If you wish to be buried in such a crypt, and your rabbi will not officiate at the entombment, you need to arrange in advance for a rabbi or cantor to officiate. Most likely, your rabbi, if you wish, will officiate at the funeral, as long as it is held in a funeral home.
5. "Returning to the earth" is also the reason why traditional Jewish practice does not favor cremation. Not only will rabbis who oppose cremation not participate in any way in such a funeral, the synagogue vey likely will not formally participate in any shiva rituals, including the providing of minyanim. If you insist on cremation, you must discuss with your rabbi what the ramifications will be.
6. Certain funeral practices — embalming, putting the deceased on view (either publicly or privately), flowers at the funeral home and at the cemetery — run counter to traditional Jewish practice in the United States and should not be engaged in here without prior consultation with your rabbi.
The last thing you should want is for family members to make decisions about a funeral after a loved one has died and they are emotionally drained. The best advice, therefore, is to meet with your rabbi before meeting with the funeral home so that you can discuss all of these issues and your rabbi can help you make decisions that are right for you. He or she may also go with you to the home, if you wish it. Your rabbi likely will also be able to give you a good idea of what each funeral home offers and how much each one charges for funerals, thereby allowing you to make the most informed decision possible.
It is also of great importance that you notify your rabbi immediately after a death has occurred and that he or she be involved in planning the funeral from the start. There have been too many cases in which rabbis were told after all the planning was over that a funeral would be held at such - and - such a time, only to have to tell the family that he or she would not be able to officiate, for one reason or another. If you want your rabbi at the funeral, you need to consult with your rabbi before making any specific plans.
One final issue: If the funeral service is to be held at a funeral home, the rabbi must be the sole decider of how many speakers there will be and how long the service will last. Please keep in mind that there are other opportunities for people to share their memories — at the graveside and during the shiva especially.
It may sound cruel to give the rabbi the power to decide who will speak for the deceased and for how long, but this is a sadly practical matter. Some cemeteries in our area charge additional fees for funerals that arrive after a scheduled time. In morning funerals, there may be the additional need to arrive at the cemetery before the lunch break. At one recent funeral, in which the family insisted on doing things its way, the cortege arrived at a New York City cemetery at 11:59 a.m. and had to sit there until lunch ended at 1 p.m. The rabbi knows what time the cortege must arrive at the cemetery and how much time is needed to get there from the funeral home. That determines how long the service should be.
Your rabbi is available to talk with you whenever you want. Please, have that discussion soon.