Jewish Funeral Customs and Traditions

Bereavement in Judaism is a combination of minhag (traditional custom) and mitzvah (good deeds or religious obligation) derived from Judaism's classical Torah and rabbinic texts. The details of observance and practice vary according to each Jewish community.

Jewish Death Rituals According to Jewish Law

• The body of the deceased is washed thoroughly.
• The deceased is buried in a simple pine coffin.
• The deceased is buried wearing a simple white shroud (tachrichim).
• The body is guarded or watched from the moment of death until after burial.
• Just before a funeral begins, the immediate relatives of the deceased tear their garments or the rabbi does this to them or hands them torn black ribbons to pin on their clothes to symbolize their loss.
• Upon hearing about a death, a Jew recites the words, "Baruch dayan emet," Blessed be the one true Judge.

There is also a custom of rending one's clothes at the moment one hears news of a passing. Orthodox men will cut the lapel of their suit on the left side, over the heart. Non-orthodox practice may be to cut a necktie or to wear a button with a torn black ribbon.

The chevra kadisha (חברה קדישא "holy group") is a Jewish burial society usually consisting of volunteers, men and women, who prepare the deceased for proper Jewish burial. Men prepare men and women prepare women. The body is dressed in white burial shrouds (tachrichim), which are purposely kept simple to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Their job is to ensure that the body of the deceased is shown proper respect, ritually cleansed and dressed in shrouds. From the moment of death, the body is not left alone until after burial. This practice, called guarding/watching (shemira), is also based on the principle of honoring the dead.
Kevura, or burial, should take place as soon as possible after death. The Torah requires burial as soon as possible, even for executed criminals. This means that burial will usually take place on the same day as death, or, if not possible, the next day. Some Reform and other congregations delay burial to allow more time for far-flung family to come to the funeral and participate in the other post-burial rituals. Jewish law mandates a simple pine box to be buried in. Cremation or embalming, are forbidden by Jewish law , however, many Reform rabbis will officiate at funerals involving cremation and embalming.

Traditional Jewish funerals are very simple and usually relatively brief. Before they begin, the immediate relatives of the deceased – siblings, parents, children, spouse – tear their garments to symbolize their loss. In Israel the Jewish funeral service will usually commence at the burial ground. In the United States and Canada, the funeral service will usually commence at a funeral home (and occasionally a synagogue or temple) for an ordinary Jew, and from there the mourners and their entourage proceed to a Jewish cemetery for the burial. In the case of a more prominent person, such as a well-known communal leader, rabbi, rebbe, or rosh yeshiva, the entire service with eulogies can be held at the synagogue or yeshiva that the deceased was affiliated with. The funeral itself, the procession and burial, may all be referred to by the word levayah ("accompanying").

Mourners do not shower or bathe for a week, do not wear leather shoes and/or jewelry, men do not shave, and in many communities large wall mirrors in the mourners' home are covered. It is customary for the mourners to sit on low stools or even the floor, symbolic of the emotional reality of being "brought low" by the grief. The meal of consolation (seudat havra'ah), the first meal eaten on returning from the funeral, traditionally consists of hard boiled eggs and other round or oblong foods. It is customary for friends and family of the deceased as well as friends of the deceased's relatives to pay a Shiva call to the designated location where people are sitting Shiva, usually at the home of a close family member. Jews do not send flowers, but when paying a Shiva call it is appropriate to bring food, because the person mourning is not supposed to worry about such mundane matters. Being surrounded by family and close friends often helps mourners cope with the immediate loss. Often, family members find great solace from sharing memories of the deceased during the Shiva period.

If the mourner returns from the cemetery after the burial before sundown, then the day of the funeral is counted as the first of the seven days of mourning. Mourning generally concludes in the morning of the seventh day.

11 Dec 2009

By Funeral Home Resource Team