Before Death Comes

III. Before Death Comes

Last Will and Testament

Every adult should have a will, a legal document in which one disposes of one’s material assets. Some people think of a will as necessary only if there is a large estate or when death is imminent. Such assumptions are mistaken and can have awful consequences. No matter what your age or financial situation, a will relieves your family of the burden of disposing of personal possessions, avoids or minimizes a range of potential problems and complications later, and reduces probate and other costs. Although it is possible to create a legally valid will on your own, consulting an attorney with experience in such matters is by far the wiser course and is likely to prove the most financially prudent one.

In addition to addressing property and guardianship issues, a will can also specify your desires concerning funeral arrangements and organ donations. However, since the will is normally not consulted until after the funeral, it is imperative to record your wishes separately and to make them known to those who will be responsible for handling the arrangements at the time of death. One way of doing so is to fill out the family information forms at the end of this guide. We also recommend that you make a copy of those forms and place them on file in our clergy suite.

Making One’s Wishes Known re: Medical Treatment

Jewish tradition affirms the sanctity of life and encourages strenuous efforts to preserve life. It forbids both euthanasia and “assisted suicide,” the active taking of life of the terminally ill. However, it affirms that when the attending physicians declare there is no realistic hope for a patient and death is certain, impediments to death must not be created or should be removed, allowing a patient to die in dignity and peace. Thus, Judaism allows the withholding of treatment, when the result of treatment would be to delay an impending death rather than prolong life. It also allows the administration of pain relief medication to a patient with a terminal disease, even if the dosage required to control pain endangers the life of the patient.

Many people do not desire that their life be artificially prolonged when they have an incurable and irreversible condition and death is near or they are in an irreversible coma or persistent vegetative state and are no longer able to make decisions regarding medical treatment.

Under Ohio law, there are two forms that may be used to make your wishes known and to guide your loved ones in acting, should that prove necessary, in accordance with your values and desires.

The first is a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. This form allows you to appoint someone as your agent to make all health care decisions for you, should you become unable to communicate, or unable to make decisions for yourself.

The second is a Living Will. This form allows you to give advance written directions about all your health care decisions when you are terminally ill and unable to communicate or in a permanently unconscious state. These documents are also referred to as advance directives because they are signed in advance to let your doctor and others know your wishes concerning medical treatment.

Ethical Will

In contrast to a last will and testament, which disposes of things of material value, an ethical will is a statement to your survivors of the beliefs and values you seek to transmit and perpetuate. It is a mitzvah to prepare an ethical will for the moral guidance of your family, especially children. Any of our clergy would be pleased to share examples of ethical wills with you. Preparing such a will is not a complicated or technical process. It is as simple as writing a letter to those you love expressing your feelings, advice, and hopes for the future. As with other wills, it is advisable to prepare an ethical will when you are strong and healthy. All wills should be left in a safe place that is known to the family.

Organ Donation

Judaism permits and Reform Judaism encourages organ donation in the hope of saving the life or significantly improving the quality of life of another person or persons. The mitzvah of pikuach nefesh , saving life, takes precedence over virtually all other considerations. Many people die each year who could be saved if a donated organ were available for transplantation. If you wish to donate organs of your body, you should so inform family members, especially those who will be responsible for making funeral arrangements as well as health care decisions, should you be unable to do so. You may register as an organ donor with the Ohio Organ Donor Registry by filling out a form at any office of the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles or online at . Be sure to make your wishes known to those who would care for you in the event of an accident. Jewish tradition disallows donation of the body to science, but Reform Judaism permits this practice, provided that the body will be treated with respect and the remains are interred when the study is completed. It is wise to discuss your wishes with family members and one of the rabbis.


Reform Judaism permits autopsies when legally required or so long as they are performed for the clear purpose of increasing medical knowledge that will help others to live. If the deceased has forbidden an autopsy, these instructions should be honored unless an epidemic threatens or they are contrary to law.

Burial, Cremation and Embalming

Jewish tradition prescribes burial as the sole acceptable manner of disposition of the body, in keeping with the belief that “the soul returns to God, its maker; the body returns to the earth from which it came.” Tradition regards cremation as an unnatural hastening, and embalming as an unnatural retarding, of the body’s reintegration with the natural world. In the modern period, cremation has also become associated with the destruction of Jewish bodies during the Holocaust.
Burial remains the practice of a large majority of Jews, including Temple members and their families. Reform practice permits cremation when it has been insisted upon by the deceased. A memorial service can be held in lieu of a funeral and it normally takes place after the cremation has been completed. Ashes may be interred in a cemetery or placed in a mausoleum thereafter. This is preferable to scattering as it provides the survivors with a place where they can feel a special closeness to their loved one.

Cemetery Arrangements

One of the first things any newly established Jewish community does is provide for a Jewish cemetery, thus consecrating the ground for sacred purposes and undertaking to provide perpetual care to the graves of those buried there. This goes back to the patriarch, Abraham, who purchased a burial place for Sarah and his family in ancient times.

It is prudent to make cemetery arrangements well in advance of the time of death in order to spare loved ones this burden at a most difficult time. Our congregation maintains Mayfield Cemetery for the use of its members. There is also a mausoleum for our use. The cemetery office can be reached at 216-321-1733.


(click on section titles to navigate to page)

          1. Foreword
          2. Introduction
          3. Before Death Comes
          4. In Time Of Illness
          5. From The Time Of Death To The Funeral Service
          6. Making Funeral Arrangements
          7. The Funeral/Memorial Service And Burial/Interment
          8. After The Funeral And Interment
          9. Mourning Observances
          10. After Shiva
          11. Resources
          12. Bibliography
          13. Acknowledgements