The Process of a Jewish Funeral
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We believe it's safe to say that almost any Jewish funeral–whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform–is characterized by simplicity and solemnity. However, as with anything in life, there's diversity in the interpretation and application of Jewish funeral customs. This means one Jewish funeral ceremony can look very different from another; yet, both would honor the same traditional motivations:to show respect for the dead, and to comfort the living.
The ceremony described below can be seen to exist at one end of the spectrum of tradition, that of the Orthodox Jewish funeral. So, as you read, remember the Jewish funeral ceremony you attend may not exactly conform to these observations. For example, while Orthodox funeral ceremonies have neither music nor flowers; this is not necessarily true for other Jewish funeral ceremonies.
Jewish funeral services are held in one of three locations: the synagogue, our funeral home, or at the graveside. Usually fairly brief, a Jewish funeral ceremony includes the recitation of psalms; followed by a eulogy, or Hesped, and concludes with the traditional closing memorial prayer known as the El Moley Rachamim.
And, depending on the wishes of the family (usually defined by the specific Jewish movement to which they belong, Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox), you may witness any or all of the following activities and behaviors at a Jewish funeral service:
Commonly, the graveside service is fairly short. Once all guests have gathered together near the open grave, the procession of the casket from the hearse to the place of burial happens. Orthodox tradition can mean the pall bearers are asked to pause a number of times–usually seven–during this processional; but as mentioned, existing diversity in Jewish practices produces a spectrum of behaviors.
Just as in the Jewish funeral service, prayers are a big part of the graveside service. Sometimes they are recited prior to the lowering of the casket; other times these sacred words are spoken during the lowering process. Much of the remaining time is spent in prayer; and the El Moley Rachamim is commonly recited a second time.
The mourners may recite the Kaddish for the first time in their bereavement here at the graveside service. And, depending on the Jewish movement to which they belong, they may recite the Kaddish every day for the next eleven months.
Individually, guests and mourners may now place earth into the grave. Again, the exact way this symbolic action occurs differs widely, depending not only on the specified funeral tradition, as well as existing cemetery regulations.
Once the graveside service is over, the mourners will return to their cars. Sometimes, depending on the family and the traditional guidelines they've chosen to follow; the guests will form two parallel lines facing each other, and the mourners would pass between them as they walk to their vehicles. As they walk by, guests commonly recite a traditional blessing.
Whether you are of Jewish heritage or not, it's easy to see that since Jewish funeral traditions ask that the burial of the deceased occurs (preferably) within 24 hours of death, you will sometimes have very little advance notice regarding the funeral. This means that you may have to make hasty preparations to attend. If you do intend to be a part of the Jewish funeral, these basic guidelines may help you to get ready on short notice; however remember, not all Jewish funeral ceremonies are the same (which means you need to be responsive to the specifics of the situation):
It is the goal of Sherman's Flatbush Memorial Chapel, Inc. to provide any assistance you may need to fulfill your personal commitment to attend the Jewish funeral service of someone in your community. You may wish to read more about Jewish funeral etiquette, or would like to discover the subtleties of Jewish burial practices; but if you are preparing to attend a Jewish funeral ceremony and have additional questions about Jewish funeral traditions, please call us directly at (718) 377-7300.
Black, Joe, "What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral," Reform Judaism, accessed 2014.
Klug, Alcalay Lisa, "Jewish Funeral Customs: Saying Goodbye to a Loved One," The Jewish Federations of North America, accessed 2014.
Wolfson, Ron, "Going to a Jewish Funeral," My Jewish Learning, accessed 2014.