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While most Jewish funeral traditions are the same around the world, there are some variations depending on one’s heritage. For example, Ashkenazic Jews (those whose ancestors are from Eastern Europe) and Sephardic Jews (those of Spanish/Middle Eastern descent) have differing traditions around holidays, life cycle events and more. As such, let’s start with a basic definition of a Jewish funeral.
A Jewish funeral differs in many ways from a Christian funeral and that of other religions and cultures. As such, Jewish funeral etiquette also differs. For instance, there is no viewing. To honor the deceased, the casket remains closed, with friends and family prohibited from seeing the person who has passed.
The customs described below are those of Ashkenazi Jews.
As a sense of respect, the deceased is not left alone from the time of death until the funeral. Volunteers from the Jewish community sit with the deceased, often reading psalms, until the burial.
Typically, the time between death and burial is not long. Traditionally a Jewish burial is supposed to take place within 24 hours of death. This is done in accordance with the Torah, sacred Jewish scripture, which says, "You shall bury him the same day.... His body should not remain all night." Today, outside of Orthodox communities, funerals rarely occur this quickly. However, the funeral should take place as soon as possible following the death.
Burials never take place on the Sabbath or holidays.
Before the deceased is buried, the person must be ritually washed. Those who volunteer to do this righteous task are members of a “chevra kadisha,” or holy society. They are on call 24 hours a day. Men perform the ritual on males who have passed, and women do so for females. Once the deceased is washed, the person is clothed in a white linen shroud. Men also wear a “tallit,” or prayer shawl. Some people are buried in a “kittel,” a white garment worn on the High Holidays and sometimes at weddings.
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As with traditional Jewish services, at a funeral some of the readings will be in Hebrew and some will be in English. Usually the rabbi will offer a brief explanation of the Hebrew portions of the service. It should be noted that a rabbi is not required to perform a funeral ceremony; any Jewish person can do so.
Music and flowers are typically prohibited. So while your instinct may be to send flowers to the bereaved as a sign of respect, stop yourself in this instance.
Jewish funeral etiquette varies; usually men are asked to wear a skullcap and women a head covering. Black or dark colors are appropriate, as are respectful clothes such as suits, dresses, or business attire.
You may notice that immediate family members wear a black button-looking pin with a ribbon hanging from it. The ribbon is then cut, symbolizing the grief and anger one experiences at the loss of a loved one. This tradition is called “kriah,” which means “tearing.” It is an ancient tradition, one that dates back to the time of King David. More traditional Jews will actually tear the collar of their clothing.
The torn ribbon or garment is worn for “shiva,” the seven days following the funeral. You may have heard of the term “sitting shiva.” This is a seven-day period of intense mourning; the mourners traditionally sit on the floor and do not wear shoes so that they can focus on grieving. The mourners stay at home and a service is held there each night. Today, many mourners only observe one or two days of shiva. During this time, those who go to the home bring food (usually kosher) to serve both the family and their guests. If you’re not sure what to bring, it’s traditional to offer round foods (bread, hard-boiled eggs, etc.), symbolizing the continuity of life.
More traditional Jews will wear the torn item for the entire thirty days of “shloshim” following the funeral. During this time of mourning, it is Jewish funeral tradition to refrain from cutting one’s hair. Men also refrain from shaving. Those observing “shloshim” do not attend social or even religious events. However, a mourner may attend the religious ceremony but not the festive meal that follows it.
You may notice at the graveside ceremony that the casket is a simple wooden one. This is not a reflection on how the family felt toward the deceased. Instead, it is customary that all Jews are buried in plain caskets so as to not distinguish between the rich and the poor. Another reason is the biblical teaching, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” A casket must not be made of a material, such as metal, that slows down the body’s natural return to the elements. For this reason, embalming is prohibited.
At the funeral, when the casket is lowered into the grave, Jewish funeral etiquette dictates that family members will be asked to each help fill the grave with dirt. They will take a shovelful of dirt and drop it onto the casket. This helps give the family closure after loss of a loved one.
While at Christian cemeteries you’ll see flowers placed on plots, at Jewish cemeteries you’ll see stones placed on the headstones. One reason, albeit a superstitious one, is that stones keep the soul down. Stones, unlike flowers, do not die. And so they keep the person’s memory alive.
Most Jewish people do not want to be cremated. This is mainly a reaction to the millions of Jews who died in the crematoria during the Holocaust.
When you leave the cemetery, you may notice people washing their hands. This symbolic gesture is designed to disassociate the living from death and impurity.
For one year following the death of a parent, children recite the “kaddish,” or mourner’s prayer. Every year on the anniversary of the death, children light a “yahrtzeit” candle in memory of their parent.
After the funeral, if you go back to the family’s home you may notice that all the mirrors are covered. This Jewish burial tradition prevents the mourners from being distracted of focusing on the deceased. It also keeps the bereaved from preening and focusing on less worldly matters.
Approximately one year after the funeral, the family gathers at the gravesite for what’s called an unveiling. At that time, the actual gravestone is unveiled. The service gives the family closure after what is considered an adequate time to grieve.
What do you wear to sit shiva?
You should dress respectfully. Men should wear long pants and a dress shirt. Women should dress conservatively. Skirts should fall below the knee or to the ankle.
What is Shemira?
Shemira is the Jewish funeral tradition of watching over the deceased from the time of death until burial.
What is the difference between shiva and shloshim?
Shiva is a time of private mourning and reclusion. Sholshim is still a mourning period, but it is also a time designated for reentering the community. Shiva typically lasts seven days and Sholshim typically lasts thirty days, but this may change depending on the time of year and any religious festivals. Ask a rabbi for guidance.
How long is a typical Jewish funeral?
A Jewish funeral will last about 20 minutes. This time will be spent listening to readings from the book of psalms and a eulogy.
What can you expect to see on a Jewish headstone?
The headstone can be elaborate or a simple as the family chooses, the main difference is that a headstone for a member of the Jewish faith will include his or her Hebrew name.
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