How are Jewish Funerals Different Than Other Funerals?
For friends and relatives not raised in the Jewish faith, Jewish funeral customs may come as somewhat of a surprise. Although the funeral differs from funerals associated with many other faiths, Jews focus on honoring the deceased and acknowledging the recent loss experienced by immediate family members who are in mourning. The service is simple, relatively quick and always soon after death. Jewish law dictates many of the customs seen and often synagogues complete most of the funeral arrangements for their Jewish members in order to ease the burden on the family.
Unlike many other funerals, Jewish law dictates the timing of the burial, clothing worn by the deceased, type of casket used and type of funeral. Traditionally flowers are not included in a Jewish funeral service and the entire service is kept simple to symbolize that all persons are equal in death. Other examples of simplicity dictated by Jewish law are the use of a plain pine box instead of a more elaborate casket, simple white burial shrouds worn by the deceased and neither cremation nor embalming are permitted. Due to the strong Jewish tradition which takes place during a funeral, having a funeral director who is Jewish is crucial to ensure that tradition, law and meaning are exercised during the funeral, especially in situations where the deceased member did not belong to a synagogue. A list of Jewish funeral homes and Jewish funeral directors of America is available online, in phone books, at many hospitals and at local synagogues. The funeral director can help inform you of local funeral homes which will ensure Jewish law and tradition are incorporated.
From the moment of death, a Jewish body is never left alone until after burial. Ritual washing is performed by Jewish members of the same sex as the deceased. If the deceased died as the result of an injury which resulted in their clothes becoming soaked with blood, the ritual washing is not performed as the blood is considered sacred.
During the funeral service, a deceased man's prayer shawl is torn rendering it ineffective and the garments of immediate family members are torn to symbolize their loss. Psalms are recited followed by a eulogy, memorial prayer and then the deceased is taken out by males followed by the mourning family members. As a sign of respect, anyone who attends the funeral service but not the burial will walk a short distance behind the hearse to symbolically escort the deceased. Once at the cemetery, the procession will halt seven times to recite Psalm 91 and once the coffin is placed in the ground, close family members and friends throw handfuls of dirt over it. Mourning family members symbolically wash their hands prior to leaving the cemetery.
Though different from many other religions, the traditions practiced by Jews at funeral services honor their dead. They are filled with customs which allow Jews to feel at peace with the knowledge they are all the same in death.
Jewish funerals are very similar in most respects to Christian Funerals. The first thing to do after a death in the family is to contact your rabbi or another synagogue leader. If you do not have a family rabbi, just about any funeral homes can suggest rabbis who will conduct a funeral. Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible, usually within 24 hours, following a principle of honoring the dead (k'vod hamet). Only if immediate relatives cannot arrive in time from abroad, or there is not enough time for burial before Shabbat or a holiday, are burials postponed for a day. Anything less is considered a "humiliation of the dead."
Jewish Funeral law mandates a simple pine box, so although you will need to choose a cemetery plot, you will not need to worry about selecting a fancy coffin or if they wanted cremation.
Most well organized communities offer the services a sacred burial society (Chevra Kaddisha), which will prepare the body for burial. Men prepare men and women prepare women. They wash the body with warm water from head to foot and, although they may turn the body as necessary to clean it entirely, including all orifices, they never place it face down. The body is dressed in white burial shrouds (tachrichim), which are purposely kept simple to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Men are buried with their prayer shawls (tallits), which are rendered ineffective by cutting off one of the fringes.
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.
Sometimes the rabbi will tear their garments for them and recite a blessing, "Baruch atah Hashem Elokeinu melech haolam, dayan ha'emet," Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, the true Judge. A shorter version of the same blessing is recited by all who witness or hear about a death: "Baruch dayan emet," Blessed is the one true Judge.
Following the burial, non-family members form two lines and, as the mourners pass by them, they recite the traditional condolence: "Hamakom y'nachem etchem b'toch sh'ar availai tziyon ee yerushalayim." May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. In traditional funerals, before leaving the cemetery mourners wash their hands as a symbolic cleansing.
After the burial, it is customary for the family to sit Shiva (in mourning). This was traditionally done for seven days, although many Reform and other Jews now sit Shiva for three days, and some for one day. Traditional Jews cover all mirrors during this time and sit on Shiva benches, however less observant Jews do not. 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.
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.