The point at which all life leaves our body
We traditionally do not leave a person alone for yetsiat haneshamah - the departure of the soul, although it is recognised that this may happen. It used to be the practice that as someone died all those present would tear their clothes, although this custom is now generally observed later by immediate mourners. Some people have the custom of opening a window at the point of death to symbolically allow the soul to leave. A more common custom is to recite the Shema on behalf of the person who has just passed away.
After a short period of time that allows for us to be certain that the soul has departed, the eyes are closed, the arms are gently lowered to the side of the body and the mouth is closed. If there are medical staff in attendance, they should remove all drips and catheters without family or friends present. They may also have to delicately clean some parts of the body, and this also should be performed away from loved ones. They should not remove jewellery.
Traditionally, we cover the face of the deceased as a sign of respect - this is often a helpful precursor to leaving the room, which is more difficult when the face is still exposed. It also helps loved ones remember the person as they were in life, as opposed to in death.
If yetsiat haneshamah occured in a hospital, the staff will call a doctor to certify the death, whereas if it occurs at home, this will have to be done by a member of family, preferably as quickly as possible. At home, some people follow the custom of lighting a candle and placing it near to the head of the deceased - often a yahrzeit candle is used. A number of mourners observe the custom of waching, which is the maintenance of a constant vigil with the body until it is taken away, a custom either derived in the necessity to protect the body (in which case this may not be necessary) or derived in the need to accompany the person on their final journey (in which case this may be a very moving ritual). During waching, one does not eat or drink, one talks in a low tone only about serious matters, and there is a frequent custom to recite Psalms (Forms of Prayer, 2008, p.612f.). Waching is a very long ritual, and may be best performed by a number of family members, friends, or members of the community in shifts. If the person died in the hospital, waching may be possible in a private room, although sometimes it may simply be performed by drawing the curtains. Permission will need to be obtained from hospital staff.
(both made available by Rabbi Rena Arshinoff at Kolel.org: the adult centre for liberal Jewish learning).
The Movement for Reform Judaism does not consider this text to constitute the definitive answer on this subject. We believe that Judaism is a living, evolving faith and, as such, there is no 'final word' on Jewish texts, traditions and thought.