Jewish Funeral Traditions
The Process of a Jewish Funeral
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The following are accepted explanations for Jewish funeral rituals. However consult your clergy for further clarification or additional questions.
From the Time of Death to the Funeral:
Who is a mourner?
Mourners are those who are immediately related to the deceased – mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife and child. From the moment of death until the burial, each of these immediate relatives is considered an onen. The onen has no religious obligation except to attend to the practical necessities of arranging for the funeral. Once burial has occurred, the seven immediate relatives are considered mourners.
What are the preparations for burial?
Tahara – Cleansing the body, tahara, is a mitzvah performed by the chevra kadisha, the Burial Society. Tahara is considered a ritual act of purification. Men perform taharas on men and women perform taharas on women. The body is then dressed in tachrichim and often a small amount of eretz Yisroael (Israeli earth) is placed under the head.
Tachrichim –This is the traditional muslin or linen burial garment. The simple garment symbolizes that all are equal in the eyes of their Creator. Many men and women are buried in their tallit (prayer shawl). When wearing a tallit, one of the tzitzit (long corner fringe) is cut off, so that is no longer fit for ritual use. This also signifies that the deceased is no longer responsible for doing the mitzvot.
Shmira – Tradition encourages, as an act of great respect, that a body is not left alone from the time of death until burial. Sh'mirah can be translated as watching or guarding. A shomer is the "watchman" who stays with the body and recites selected psalms.
Aron – A traditional casket that is constructed entirely of wood. Jewish law requires the body to return to earth as soon as possible. Wood expedites this process. Often holes are drilled in the bottom of the casket to hasten decomposition and the body's return to earth.
How do we regard civil procedures related to death?
Autopsies – Tradition frowns on autopsies unless required by civil law or for immediate medical benefit. Questions about autopsies should be referred to the rabbis.
Organ Donations – In keeping with the mitzvah of saving a life, organ donations for immediate use are encouraged. Specific questions about organ donations should be referred to the rabbis.
Embalming and Cremation – Both embalming and cremation are discouraged by Jewish law. Embalming is not required by civil law.
Where is the funeral service held?
Jewish funeral services, which are characterized by simplicity and brevity, may be conducted at a funeral chapel or graveside. Members of a temple/synagogue have the privilege of a funeral service at their temple/synagogue or ask about our temple/synagogue partners.
What happens at the funeral service?
Kriah – Before the service begins, the mourners gather together with the rabbi to perform kriah, rending a garment. Kriah is an ancient tradition which can be traced to biblical times. The custom today is to cut a black ribbon which children of the deceased wear on the left side over the heart and other mourners wear on the right. During this ritual, mourners stand to signify strength at the time of grief, and they recite a prayer acknowledging the inevitability of death.
Service – The bereaved family is seated at the front of the synagogue or chapel. The casket remains closed. Flowers, a symbol of life and celebration, are not customary. The service includes psalms and inspirational readings. The eulogy is intended to highlight the enduring qualities of the deceased. The service ends with the El Moley Rachamim prayer, “God Full of Compassion,” which expresses the hope that the deceased will be granted eternal peace.
Pallbearers – At the end of the service, it is optional for the family to designate pallbearers to escort the casket to the hearse. As a sign of respect, the casket precedes the mourners. Up to six pallbearers may participate; at the cemetery, the cemetery staff usually handles the casket. Honorary pallbearers may also be assigned. Mourners do not serve as pallbearers.
Should children attend?
The presence of children at a funeral is ultimately a family decision. Recent work in psychology suggests that children may be more frightened by what they imagine occurs at funerals than what actually happens. Hence, from the age of 6 or older children should be given the opportunity to attend.
How do we regard viewing?
Jewish tradition discourages viewing the deceased. It considers opening a casket prior to burial an intrusion of the deceased’s privacy.
What traditions are observed at the burial?
The burial service is simple, consisting of a psalm, the chanting of the El Moley Rachamim prayer and the recitation of the kaddish. Traditionally, the casket is lowered and covered with earth before the mourners leave the cemetery called K'vurah. Today, some families continue this practice, while others choose to not cover fully, but place a small shovel full of earth on the casket, to participate in the process of the burial. At the end of the service, mourners leave the cemetery walking between two lines formed by family and friends offering comfort and support. With this shift from honoring the dead to consoling the bereaved, the official mourning period begins.
What home rituals are observed by mourners upon returning from the cemetery?
Hand washing – Before entering the home, mourners and those who have been to the cemetery customarily pour water on their hands as a symbolic act of purification. Alternatively, this practice may be performed at the cemetery.
Meal of Consolation – Mourners do not need to act as hosts or to entertain people after the funeral. Customarily, family or friends prepare a meal and serve it to the mourners. Since eggs are one of the few substances that become harder when subjected to heat, hard boiled eggs are included as a symbol of strength.
What is the kaddish?
An ancient prose poem, the kaddish praises God for life and anticipates peace on earth. It has five variations; one is the mourner’s kaddish intended as a statement of faith at a time when we feel most threatened and fragmented. Mourners recite the kaddish throughout the mourning period.
How long is the mourning period?
Shiva – The first seven-day period after death, called shiva, is a time of intensive mourning. During shiva, the kaddish is said daily at home in the presence of a minyan. Mourners are encouraged to refrain from work and other routine activities and to remain at home so that friends, family, neighbors and colleagues can visit to offer comfort. Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day after burial. Shabbat is counted as part of the shiva although the public rituals, such as sitting on a low stool or wearing a kriah ribbon, are not observed. Certain holidays may affect shiva in several ways, please consult your rabbi.
Shloshim – The first thirty-day period of mourning after burial is called shloshim. All mourners recite the kaddish and refrain from public acts of joy. Children who have lost a parent continue to mourn for a year and say kaddish for 11 months and one day. For all other mourners, the official mourning period ends at the conclusion of shloshim.
Yahrzeit – The anniversary of a death, yahrzeit, is observed each year by reciting kaddish at the synagogue, lighting a memorial lamp at home, and giving tzedakah in memory of the deceased.
How do Jews memorialize the dead?
Jewish tradition provides several ways for memorializing the dead.
Yizkor – Memorial prayers, yizkor, are recited as a congregation four times a year: on Yom Kippur and on the three major festivals, Shemini Atzeret, which comes at the end of Sukkot, the last day of Pesach, and the second day of Shavuot.
Monuments – Jewish law requires that a grave be marked, but neither the type of marker nor the inscription itself is specified. Cemeteries have varying requirements about size and placement of such markers. Inscriptions usually include the name of the deceased in Hebrew and in English as well as the date of birth and date of death. Sometimes other information is noted or a quotation about the person is added. Many end with five Hebrew letters: which are an abbreviation for the phrase t’hee nishmato/nishmata tzrura b’tzor hechaim, “may his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life.”
Unveiling – This ceremony, which is not required by Jewish law, has come to include the recitation of a few psalms, the chanting of El Moley Rachamim, the mourner’s kaddish, and a few words spoken about the deceased. It may be held any time after the thirty days from the day of the funeral. Family members themselves often conduct these simple services or consult your rabbi.
Synagogue Plaques – Many congregations display plaques with the names of many deceased members. A light is lit next to the name each year during the month in which the yahrzeit falls. Arrangements for the purchase of these plaques may be made through your synagogue office.