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How to Plan for Death in Judaism

Jews are encouraged to prepare for death as much as possible. After all, the more you plan for your death and communicate about it in advance, the easier you make things for your family and friends after you die. You can take several steps to prepare for death properly, including writing an ethical will and making plans for your burial.

The idea of writing a will describing what to do with your assets is widely accepted. However, Jewish tradition has long urged writing an ethical will as well, communicating your values and lessons, perhaps in the form of a letter or essay to be read after you die.

People have published some wonderful and moving collections of ethical wills, including those written by great Jewish figures such as Maimonides, Nachmanides, and the Vilna Gaon. In modern times, people often create a video of themselves describing their ethical wills, to be shared with their survivors upon their deaths.

Many people include their ethical will as an unofficial “preamble” to their legal wills, although even if you have few or no assets at all, you can still write an ethical will. Many people have reported that this document has become a treasured family heirloom after a parent’s or sibling’s death.

Don’t worry about sounding official or poetic when writing an ethical will. Here are a few things you may think about including in your ethical will:

  • Your personal and spiritual values

  • Your feelings about Judaism and your Jewish identity

  • How you would like people in your family to treat each other after you die

  • What accomplishments you feel good about and what mistakes you want others to avoid

Some people also include a note in their ethical will forgiving or asking forgiveness, but Jewish tradition also encourages people to ask for or give forgiveness in person whenever possible.

The Jewish custom of making a “confession” just before death involves asking for a blanket forgiveness for all misdeeds. A Jewish “confession” is very different than those of other traditions. For Jews, confession doesn’t require a rabbi, although often someone acts as a witness. Similarly, because Judaism holds that each person’s confession is between him or her and God, the act of confession doesn’t involve being absolved by anyone.

If possible, a person who is approaching death may want to recite the central affirmation of Judaism, called the Sh’ma, which proclaims the absolute oneness of God. This recitation is meant to inspire calmness at a moment of transition, urging us to remember that everything is contained in God and that, in God, nothing can ever be lost.

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