Understanding the details of planning a shiva can be overwhelming. In general, very shortly after the loss of a loved one the mourning family begins preparing for the funeral, burial and shiva. The shiva, the first structured period of mourning in Judaism, opens the doors of the mourning family’s home to the community. During this time, family and friends offer support and comfort to the grieving family by making a shiva call. This tradition while very comforting to the mourning family can also create a great deal of stress because of the organization required. As a result, in most instances, extended family and friends assist with coordinating the shiva for the mourning family.

Who Plans the Shiva for a Mourning Family?

It is customarily the responsibility of a shiva coordinator, or family representative, to help with handling all of the logistics and the many details involved when coordinating a shiva. Selected by the mourning family, the shiva coordinator is an individual who is generally not an immediate family member. Most commonly, the coordinator is either a family friend or a more distant relative. Once selected, the family representative immediately begins coordinating the many different aspects of the shiva, including communicating with friends and the community, coordinating meals for the full shiva period, setting up the shiva home and attending to the needs of the mourning family.

Understanding the Timing for Shiva Preparations

Once the shiva coordinator has been chosen and notified, one of the first things that he/she must consider is timing, to ensure that the family’s wishes are met and everything is coordinated appropriately. Generally, the family selects a date/time for the funeral and burial, with the shiva to follow. In the Jewish faith, it is traditional for the funeral and burial to occur within 24 hours after the death; however, to allow time for family and friends living out of state to arrive, and for other logistical arrangements to be made, it is often up to the family to decide when the funeral will take place. Depending on the length of time between the death of the loved one and the funeral, the shiva coordinator may want to create a timeline for the coordination, as some shivas will have more time to be prepared, while others may need to be planned with 24 hours.

Sending out Communications

When an individual passes away in the Jewish faith there are many ways to notify extended family, friends and community about the loss. Often, this responsibility falls on the shiva coordinator, who personally calls extended family and friends. In addition, it is common for synagogues, family and friends to pass this information along to others in the community. Along with sharing the news of the passing, the shiva coordinator is generally responsible for ensuring that the mourning family’s community is informed on the full details of the shiva, including when and where the shiva home will be open to accept visitors. When the obituary is published and/or the news of the death is circulated, it is very common for the coordinator to receive many phone calls, emails and text messages from individuals seeking additional information and offering to help with planning or even to contribute to the shiva.

How to Communicate and Distribute Information

There are multiple mediums for distributing information about the funeral, burial and shiva. Many individuals use technology and the Internet as a centralized location for the dissemination of information, including the obituary and shiva details. The coordinator also ensures that the synagogue and funeral home are provided with the shiva details, such as location and times. If an individual would like to make a shiva call, the funeral home and local synagogue may be the first places they will check for this information.

Based on the family’s wishes, the shiva details are shared publically as soon as possible to allow adequate time to re-arrange schedules and attend. This may help the shiva coordinator to make arrangements for the food for family and will often help those making a shiva call to plan. In addition, it is common that the details of the shiva are announced at the end of the funeral services and a small hand out containing these details is circulated to the funeral attendees.

Initial Preparations

Before the shiva coordinator begins the physical set up of the shiva home, it would be best for them to make a comprehensive list of all items needed for the shiva. This list should include all food items needed, as well as any supplies needed for the home to accept visitors. When completing the list, the family representative should consult the family on their preferences. When doing so, they should be sure to find out about any additional needs the family may have, including any special dietary issues, such as kashrut and medical ones, as well. Once the itemized list is completed, the representative should gather all available items and bring them to the shiva home. It is common for the representative to assign various individuals to complete different tasks for the family. The shiva home should be fully prepared by the time the family returns from the burial.

One of the first arrangements that should be planned is the first dinner, or seudat havara'ah, for the mourning family. There are some symbolic items generally present during this meal including peeled hard boiled eggs and lentils and it the responsibility of the shiva coordinator to ensure that the meal is planned properly and is ready for the family when they return home from the burial.

Catering a Shiva

To have the shiva catered is the easiest way to provide the mourning family with meals for the entire length of the shiva. A quick search for local delicatessens or catering companies may provide options for shiva-appropriate catering; shiva.com also provides a list of approved providers in its trusted business vendor directory, which consists of high quality vendors in many cities across the United States. Once the shiva dates are set, the coordinator should call the chosen deli or catering company as soon as possible to ensure that the process will be seamless. Many companies or restaurants that are experienced in shiva catering will be able to assist in the process, helping to arrange which meals will be sent when and what should be expected. The coordinator should check with the catering company to ensure that assistance can be provided for food setup as well as with the serving, if necessary. Once the catering is organized and the company is selected, it is common for the shiva coordinator to send out communications to the community to accept monetary contributions to the catering fund. A coordinator can also use shiva.com’s Planning Services to assist with the entire process.

Making Use of Available Resources

Many of the items that are needed for a shiva are available for rental, or even simply for borrowing, from the funeral home or the family’s synagogue. Prayer books, chairs and kippot may be available for pick up from the synagogue. Once the dates of the shiva are set, the coordinator should call the synagogue to inquire about these options. The funeral home may be able to provide the yarzheit candle and, if requested, a sign-in book for the shiva home for callers to write condolence notes.

Preparing the Home for Shiva

As stated above, the shiva home should be fully prepared and ready before the mourning family returns to the home from the burial. It may be necessary, and it is not uncommon, for the shiva coordinator to remain at the home during the funeral or burial service in order to complete the preparations while the family is out of the home. The two main rooms for the shiva will be the designated room for the minyan services and the kitchen. Typically, the minyan services will be held in the living room of the home, where a larger number of guests may gather to perform the minyan service and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The preparation for this room will include laying out prayer books and ensuring there is additional seating for guests. The family may also request to have photo albums or other family mementos in this area where the mourners will sit.

The kitchen and dining rooms should be prepared to serve the mourning family the first meal. Before the shiva begins, the family should be consulted on whether or not they would like to eat the first meal alone as a family. If the family will be dining alone in the traditional manner, the coordinator will simply have to make sure the meal is ready and the dining table is set up for the family. If the community will be joining for the first meal, a buffet style meal must be prepared and additional chairs and tables should be organized. There should be a designated beverage station in the kitchen area, which may include cold water, hot water for tea, and decaffeinated coffee (regular coffee and other caffeinated drinks should be avoided). In this area, there should also be both hot and cold cups, napkins, plates, utensils and sugar and creamer for coffee. Additional supplies that will be needed later include paper towels, trash bags and items for leftover food, such as plastic wrap, foil and Ziploc bags.

What to Do During the Shiva

During shiva hours, it is important that the family representative be available to ensure that the shiva goes smoothly and that no extra stressors are added for the family. The coordinator should try to be as unobtrusive and helpful as possible. A top priority should be keeping the home clean during the busy hours of shiva calling. This will make clean up easier at the end of each day of shiva. The coordinator should also be acutely aware of the food and drink supply to ensure that there is enough for the mourning family. There should be an assigned person, either the coordinator or someone else, who will go out during shiva hours to purchase any needed supplies that are running low.