Jewish Funeral Traditions

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In Judaism, death is seen as a natural part of the life cycle. Jews have extensive mourning practices, however, these do not reflect a fear of death. Instead, these traditions serve two purposes: Jewish funeral and burial traditions are guided by the principles of k’vod hamet (respecting and honoring the dead) and nichum avelim (comforting the mourners), according to “Funeral Festivals in America: Rituals for the Living.”

What happens at a Jewish funeral

Traditional funerals are typically simple. Some may be held in a synagogue, with additional services at a funeral home and then at the gravesite. Others may be held entirely at the cemetery. Open caskets are not permitted, and the body will not be displayed during the service.

Funeral services will often include a ritual tearing of a garment or ribbon, known as keriah. The officiant will place a black ribbon on the clothing of immediate family members, explaining that the act of tearing that cloth is a way to express their grief, while also representing the tear in the family created by the death. It also demonstrates a split between the time in which mourners had to organize the funeral and the time after, in which their community supports them. In Orthodox services, actual garments are torn. A blessing is said right before or as the cloth or garment is torn.

The service will also include the recitation of psalms, a eulogy, and a memorial prayer. Traditionally, there is no music.

After the service, the casket will be wheeled or carried out of the room by male family members or members of chevra kadisha, a Jewish society that helps prepare the dead for burial. Mourners will remain standing until the family has left the room.

A short ceremony at the gravesite will follow. After the casket is lowered into the ground, the immediate family of the deceased will take turns shoveling earth onto the coffin. After the family takes part in this ritual, close friends may also sprinkle earth upon the coffin. The mourners will then recite prayers, among them the “Mourner’s Kaddish.” This important prayer, which praises God, will be recited first at the gravesite and then repeated every day for 11 months after the burial (as well as on the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death).

After the service, non-family members will form two lines and recite a traditional condolence to the family members as they pass by. Once you leave the cemetery, it’s customary to wash your hands. The hands are not dried, so as to let the memory of the loved one linger.

Following the service, the immediate family of the deceased will sit shiva to mourn their loved one. Traditionally the family would sit shiva for seven days, often in the home of the deceased, though some Jewish people today opt to sit shiva for just one or three days.

Friends and family will visit during this period, often bringing food with them for the family. Mourners sit on low stools during this time and reject any activities done for comfort or pleasure, such as shaving, wearing cosmetics, bathing with warm water, or telling jokes. Leather shoes will not be worn, and mirrors will be covered. Throughout the mourning period, the gathered family and friends will share memories of their loved one. They’ll also recite prayers and express their grief.

Planning a Jewish funeral

Immediately after the person dies, the family should contact a rabbi. The rabbi and synagogue will typically help them make the necessary arrangements. Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible after death, typically within 24 hours, as a way to show respect to the person who died. The rapid burial is also important because Judaism typically discourages embalming the body. The funeral may be postponed if immediate family members need to travel from abroad. In addition, it will be delayed if there isn’t enough time to hold the funeral before Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that begins at sunset Friday and ends Saturday after nightfall, or a holiday.

After a person dies, it’s customary to close their eyes and cover their body. Candles are typically lit next to the body. Traditionally, people will sit with the body, because it is not to be left alone until after the burial. The people who watch over the body are called shomerim, and they will not eat, drink, or do any work while they’re with the body.

Unless required by state or local law, bodies of the deceased are not embalmed. The deceased are to be buried in a simple wooden casket. The members of the chevra kadisha will prepare the body for burial by washing it with warm water and then dress it in a simple shroud. The shroud is plain so as not to distinguish between the rich or poor.

Learn more about Jewish mourning traditions in this video from BimBam, a Jewish educational website:

Frequently asked questions

Can Jews be cremated?

Traditionally, Judaism does not permit cremation, as it does not provide the body the respect it deserves. The Bible commands the body be buried in its entirety, Chabad.org notes. However, some rabbis will officiate at ceremonies involving cremation, according to the Jewish Federations.

Can Jews be embalmed?

No, Judaism doesn’t permit embalming. However, as with cremation, some rabbis will officiate at a funeral if the body was embalmed.

Can Jews donate organs?

While there are differences of opinion, many Jewish people approve of organ donation. As ReformJudaism.org explains, it’s permissible because it can help save another person’s life.

Can someone who died by suicide be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

Yes, they can. The traditional view in Jewish law was that only God has the right to end a life, so a person of sound mind who takes their own life is rebelling against God. However, today many rabbis believe that this law does not apply to a person struggling with depression or other mental illness.

What’s the dress code for a Jewish funeral?

Be sure to dress respectfully for the service. Men should wear a suit or a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt. They’ll also want to cover their heads with a kippah or yarmulke; these may be provided at the funeral home or cemetery. For women, a dress or modest skirt and shirt are typically appropriate, Chabad.org says.

Is it appropriate to send flowers?

No, this is typically not appropriate. Flowers are not placed upon the gravestone, and mourners do not fill their homes with flowers. It is customary to bring food to the family while they’re sitting shiva, and many families encourage donations to charity in memory of the deceased.

Why are stones placed upon the grave?

The custom of placing stones on a grave dates back to ancient times, though the exact explanations about the origins of this custom vary.  Unlike flowers, stones will never die, so they offer a more permanent memory. Some also believe that it started as a way to help keep the soul in this world. For many Jewish people, the ritual is comforting.

When should I visit a family while they’re sitting shiva?

The mourners will often state when they’ll be receiving guests. If they do, visit during those periods. If they don’t provide a time period, plan your visit for daytime or early evening.

What does the candle signify when a family is sitting shiva?

The burning flame represents the verse, “The flame of G-d is the soul of man,” according to Chabad.org.

Why are mirrors covered in a shiva home?

Sitting shiva is an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between God and man, and to mourn a loved one. It’s not a time for vanity or to worry about appearances. By obscuring the mirrors, mourners are allowed to concentrate on their loss.

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