Thus far we have discussed numerous mitzvot (commandments) that relate to our interactions with our fellow man. The Torah does not only instruct us to respect the living, it also instills in us a great sense of responsibility for those who are no longer with us. The Torah commands us to ensure that a dead person receives a burial as soon as possible 1. This is deemed so important that close relatives of the dead (who are involved in making the arrangements for the burial) are exempt from positive commandments until their relative is buried so that they focus all their time and energy on arranging the burial.
It is forbidden to leave the dead person unburied overnight unless there is a pressing need, for example if the close relatives need some time to travel to the location of the funeral. Ideally he should be buried before sunset.
When one sees the procession of a Jew to the burial place he should try to accompany the dead person for some distance. The minimum distance that one should accompany is four Amot (about two meters). One does not have to accompany the dead person up to the cemetery. Nonetheless, there should be at least ten men who do accompany him to is burial place so that they can say Kaddish (the sanctification of G-d’s name) and so that the dead person does not feel alone at this time.
It is a great mitzva to eulogize the dead person and bring people to a feeling of sadness at the recognition of their loss. The eulogizer should praise the dead person, and even slightly add to their praise, but be careful not to greatly overly praise them. The reason being that if he does not live up to the praises he is receiving then he may be judged more strictly in the next world. However, one can slightly add to his praise because it is common for a person to undervalue others, therefore, by slightly adding to his praise he is most likely to praise the person accurately.
When one is in a cemetery or very near a dead person (four amot) one should not wear teffilin (phylacteries) and he should tuck his tsitsit (fringes) in to his clothing. The reason for this is because the dead person will feel saddened by the fact that he can no longer perform mitzvot, therefore we refrain from openly performing mitzvot. Based on this idea, we do not learn or pray in front of the dead person unless it is in his merit 2.
It is evident from the above laws that the Torah sees that the dead person is very much aware of the surroundings. This is because it is a fundamental tenet of Torah that when a person dies, it is only his body that is lost, but his true source of identity, his soul, is never lost.
1The verse says, “you will surely bury him on that day.” (Devarim, 21:23).
2Meaning that we dedicate the reward for our learning or praying to the merit of the dead person. He will not feel pained by such performance of mitzvot because it is for his benefit.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org