Jewish Funeral Traditions
The Process of a Jewish Funeral
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While not every Jewish family rigorously follows Jewish funeral traditions, it still can be said that there is a fundamental, widely shared, Jewish perspective on life and death: all people are worthy of respect. This fundamental belief guides Jewish people in everything they do, including the physical care of the body after death.
In fact, Jewish funeral tradition argues that the human body is the vessel for a holy human life. In fact, “the sacredness of the deceased has been compared to an impaired Torah scroll which, although no longer useable, retains its holiness.”After death, this fragile vessel is considered sacred, and must be handled–to one degree or another–according to Jewish funeral customs. The degree to which these funeral traditions are followed depends largely on which of the three Jewish movements the family belongs to: Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.
Without doubt, the Jewish people are deeply committed to serving the community in which they live, and the society as a whole. This commitment is so strong that Rabbi Ken Spiro wrote, "In Judaism, social consciousness is a legal obligation."
However, upon a death of a family member, the obligations of the immediate family members change. For the parents, siblings, spouse or children of the deceased, this outward focus turns inward. In fact they are effectively relieved of all their religious obligations–except to attend to the practicalities of arranging for the funeral.
In rural areas, it becomes the duty of the Jewish community to voluntarily come to their aid in making preparations for the burial of the deceased. However, here in the metropolitan areas of New York, the duties are performed by a Chevra Kadisha who receive a fee to complete the required tasks.
Things generally move fairly quickly. Because Jewish written law, known as the Torah, states "You shall bury him the same day....His body should not remain all night", a Jewish burial usually occurs within 24 hours of death. Again, however, this ideal scenario is often compromised by reality; but certainly the funeral should take place as soon as possible.
First, the cleansing of the body, or Taharah, a ritual of purification, is performed. At this point, if traditional guidelines are being strictly followed, the body will be dressed in the Tachrichim, a simple linen or muslin garment. But, as we said before, there is much variation in the actual practice of Jewish funeral traditions. This means the deceased could also be dressed in an appropriately somber suit or dress.
A Tallit, or prayer shawl, may be placed around the shoulders of a Jewish man. If so, the Tzitzit, or corner fringe of the shawl, is cut as a symbol of how their death had effectively removed the Mitzvot responsibilities they carried during their lifetime.
When the body is placed in the traditionally-constructed casket, simply designed and without metal parts; a small amount of Eretz Yisroael, or Israeli earth, may be placed either under the head of the deceased, or sprinkled over their face and head.
It's a Jewish funeral tradition that the body is not left alone at any time between death and burial. This is the time of Shmira, when a Shomer, or “watchman”, stays with the body, reciting select prayers and psalms. Many Jewish families believe that the spirit of the deceased hovers in close proximity to the body; so this is seen as a very important time to compassionately intercede in the transition of the soul.
"Shmira," wrote Simcha Paull Raphael, in Jewish Views of the Afterlife, "is...a process of soul-guiding; the contemplative nonverbal communication between the world of the living and the realm of the discarnate soul. Sitting in front of the deceased, reciting Psalms, one should hold an attitude of a loving connection with the person who has died. The task requires trusting intuition and one's inner voices, listening inwardly for a response, and being attentive to synchronistic, meaningful experience. Soul-guiding is not a science; it is an art."
In the next article within this section of our website, you'll be introduced to–or reacquainted with–the elements within a traditional Jewish funeral service.
Sherman's Flatbush Memorial Chapel, Inc. has served Jewish families in Greater New York for over 115 years. We're keenly aware of the diversity of Jewish funeral services within the Jewish Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements; and are very respectful of each family's choices in modifying Jewish funeral traditions to fit their unique needs.
It is our honor to provide families with a suitable location for both the traditional body preparations of Taharah as well as the safeguarding and guidance period known as Shmira. Please call our Jewish funeral home in NYC at (718) 377-7300 to learn more about how we can assist your family in preparing a loved one for a Jewish funeral service and proper burial.
Raphael, Paull Simcha, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; Second Edition 2009.
Spiro, Ken, "Part 10: Jewish Family & Responsibility", accessed 2014.
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, "Guide to Jewish Funeral Practices," 2013.