Mourner Observances

Whether you are sitting shiva or visiting a shiva home, you will encounter various types of observances: Some are traditional while others are more liberally interpreted. Below, you will see the definitions of some of the more traditional fulfillments.

Staying Home
Mourners do not work during the shiva period and for the most part stay at home. During the shiva period, mourners also do not participate in parties, concerts, shows, movies, or similar events that are celebratory in nature.

Mourners are to focus on their loss in order to be able to gradually heal, and by leaving the shiva house, mourners are surrounded by distractions and more likely to lose focus.

Sitting on a Low Chair
Mourners may also be sitting on low stools or boxes as a means of expressing grief. Furthermore, this practice symbolizes the humility and pain of the mourner being “brought low” by the passing of a loved one.

Covered Mirrors
Visitors to a shiva home may also see that mirrors are covered. Although there are many explanations for this practice, the most widely accepted is that a mourner should not be concerned with his or her personal appearance at this time. In addition, while in mourning, some people will not wear makeup, men won’t shave or wear new clothes, and some will not wear shoes for the same reason.

Burning a Candle
A tall candle traditionally burns in the shiva home for seven days as a sign of memorial.

Mourner Attire
A mourner will usually be wearing a torn black ribbon on his or her clothing. This practice, known as a keriah (or “kriah”), symbolizes the tear in the mourner’s heart for his or her loss. In traditional communities, a person’s actual clothing may be torn near the heart.

This ritual calls for the mourner to wear a torn garment during the shiva, while on Shabbat, High Holy Days and festivals, no public signs of mourning are worn.

Prayer Service
In the Jewish religion, there are certain prayers recited to honor of the passing of loved ones, celebrate their life, and help with coping during the mourning process. Such prayers include the Mourner’s Kaddish and the Prayer of Mercy (or “Kel Maleh Rachamim”).

Cleansing
Upon returning from the cemetery, there may be a pitcher of water outside the front door to wash one’s hands. This custom has many sources, but the most common reason is to symbolically wash off any impurities associated with the cemetery and death.
 

Suggested Books:
A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort by Ron Wolfson 
Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning Edited by Jack Riemer & Sherwin B. Nuland
The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Maurice Lamm
The Orphaned Adult: Confronting the Death of a Parent by Rabbi Marc Angel
When A Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son by Samuel C Heilman
Why Me? Why Anyone? by Jaffe, Hirshel, Rudin, James, Rudin, Marcia
Why Me? Coping with Grief, Loss, and Change by Kraus, Pesach and Goldfischer, Morrie
When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner
To Begin Again: The Journey Towards Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times by Naomi Levy