Traditions & Customs
Jewish Funeral Practices
Just as there is a way to "live as a Jew", so is there a way to "die and be buried as a Jew". Judaism is replete with rituals for each of the life-cycle events and death is no exception.
When a loved one dies, Jewish law helps those close to the deceased by providing a series of rituals that guide the survivors through the mourning process and back into everyday life. These centuries-old traditions offer solace and help to work through the long journey of grief.
Jewish funerals honor the dignity of the deceased and provide consolation and comfort to the survivors. Many families choose to practice these rituals in different ways. A rabbi or funeral director can guide you in your observance of these funeral and mourning customs.
In our communities, groups of volunteers have formed Chevra Kaddishas (sacred societies). The Chevra is responsible for taking care of the deceased before burial. It is considered the "ultimate" mitzvah, as it is impossible for the deceased to repay it. The Chevra performs the following functions:
Tahara - This is the ritual washing and purification of the body in preparation for burial. Prayers and psalms are recited. In death as in life, the importance of preserving modesty is maintained. Men perform taharas on men and women perform taharas on women. The body is then dressed in tachrichim and often a small amount of eretz Yisroael (Israeli earth) is placed under the head.
Tachrichim - This is the traditional muslin or linen burial garment. The simple garment symbolizes that all are equal in the eyes of their Creator. Many men and women are buried in their tallit (prayer shawl). When wearing a tallit, one of the tzitzit (long corner fringe) is cut off, so that is no longer fit for ritual use. This also signifies that the deceased is no longer responsible for doing the mitzvot.
Sh'mirah - Traditionally, the Jewish body is not left alone after death and before burial. Sh'mirah can be translated as watching or guarding. A shomer is the "watchman" who stays with the body and recites selected psalms.
K'riah - This is the Hebrew word for "tear." It refers to the rending of one's clothing to show mourning. A black k'riah ribbon is often used to symbolize the rending of clothing as the symbol of profound grief felt by the immediate family (parent, child, spouse or sibling). K'riah is usually performed at the funeral while standing to symbolize strength in the face of grief. The cut (in either the clothing or the ribbon) is made on the left side, closest to the heart when mourning the loss of a parent. The loss of a parent holds a special place in Jewish law and tradition and the responsibilities of mourning a parent are greater than any other. The tearing of the clothing or ribbon is done on the right side when mourning other immediate family relatives.
Aron - A traditional casket that is constructed entirely of wood. Jewish law requires the body to return to earth as soon as possible. Wood expedites this process. Often holes are drilled in the bottom of the casket to hasten decomposition and the body's return to earth. This casket cannot be manufactured on Shabbat and should be blessed by a rabbi before it leaves the manufacturing facility. Many families today choose to break with this tradition and choose to consult with a rabbi or funeral director about making a casket selection.
K'vurah - This is the actual burial in the ground, or filling in the grave with earth. To participate in filling the grave is a mitzvah. It is considered even more of a mitzvah to assist filling in the grave because the act of kindness can never be repaid.
After the Burial
Shiva - Shiva is the first and deepest stage of mourning. Shiva is the Hebrew word for seven and therefore shiva is observed for seven days following the burial. The first day of shiva is the day of the burial. Shiva ends after morning prayers (shacharit) are recited on the seventh day.
During shiva, members of the immediate family remain inside and are comforted by visitors making condolence calls. Shiva is usually observed in the home of the deceased or a close relative. Upon returning from the cemetery, mourners traditionally eat a meal of condolence. This includes eggs, symbolizing life and fertility, and bread, symbolizing life and sustenance. This meal and others are usually provided by friends performing a mitzvah, thereby freeing up the family from their usual responsibilities.
Traditionally, mirrors are covered in a shiva house signifying that mourners have withdrawn from worldly concerns such as appearance. Tradition also dictates that mourners sit on benches or sit on chairs lower than those of the visitors. A mourner does not rise to greet the visitor. The visitors are expected to console the mourner and to let the mourner speak first. In some homes, these traditions are not followed or are followed symbolically.
The timing of shiva is altered by Shabbat and holidays. Shabbat is counted as one of the days of shiva, however the rituals of shiva are not observed on Shabbat. The torn garment or ribbon is not typically worn on Shabbat. Those who attend synagogue will leave the house to attend prayers on Shabbat during shiva. Resumption of mourning practices resumes at nightfall Saturday when Shabbat ends. The timing of shivah when there is a holiday may vary. Shiva may end the night before (erev) the holiday begins and it would be as if the full seven days of shiva had been observed. It is best to consult a rabbi if a burial occurs near a holiday.
At the end of shiva the mourners may walk once around their block. This symbolizes that they are ready to resume daily life. This is the end of the first stage of mourning.
Sh'loshim - The first 30 days after the burial including shiva, comprise the stage of Jewish mourning called Sh'loshim. This is the end of the mourning period for anyone but one's parents. Children are obligated to mourn their parents for eleven months. Sh'loshim is less restrictive than shiva. While mourners do not attend social gatherings, they may now say Kaddish daily in a synagogue instead of having a minion at home.
Yahrzeit - Yarhzeit marks the anniversary of the death in accordance with the Jewish calendar. A yarhzeit candle is lit at sunset the night before the yarhzeit date and kept lit throughout the following day until it burns out. Kaddish is recited in synagogue during services.
Yizkor - The memorial prayer of Yizkor is said four times a year during Temple services. It is said on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzereth, Pesach and Shavuoth. It is not said during the first year of mourning. During the first year of mourning, the mourner should recite "Yizkor" with the congregation, because that is when the need of the deceased for atonement and mercy is greatest. If, however, the mourner feels that he or she could not restrain himself or herself from loud and uncontrolled expressions of grief, such as would disturb the other congregants, it is acceptable to leave the synagogue during the first year.
The Unveiling Ceremony - The unveiling is the formal dedication of the headstone. It is customary for the unveiling to take place 12 months after the funeral as a way to mark the end of the formal mourning period. However, the unveiling may take place any time after sh'loshim.
If you are someone who has to plan a funeral due to the loss of a loved one, or perhaps you are attending a service for a family member or friend, here are some explanations of terms and situations you may find yourself having to address.
The funeral is a ceremony of proven worth and value for those who mourn. It provides an opportunity for the survivors and others who share in the loss to express their love, respect, grief and appreciation for a life that has been lived. It permits facing openly and realistically the crisis the death presents. Through the funeral the bereaved take that first step toward emotional adjustment to their loss. This information has been prepared as a convenient reference for modern funeral practices and customs.
The Funeral Service
The type of service conducted for the deceased is specified by the family. Our funeral directors are trained to assist families in arranging whatever type of service they desire. The service, held at our chapel, graveside, or in the temple, with the deceased present, is in accordance with the family’s wishes and the rabbi’s direction. The presence of friends at this time is an acknowledgement of friendship and support. It is helpful to friends and the community to have an obituary notice published announcing the death and day and time of the service to be held.
This service is by invitation only and may be held at our chapel or graveside. Usually, selected relatives and a few close friends attend the funeral service. Often times a formal newspaper announcement is published after the funeral has been conducted.
Friends, relatives, or business associates may be asked to serve as pallbearers. Although this is not required, many people consider this a privilege and are honored to respect the deceased in this manner. Pallbearers can either be active or honorary, and both men and women are welcome to assist at the request of the deceased’s family.
A eulogy may be given by a member of the family, clergy, a close personal friend or a business associate of the deceased. The eulogy is not to be lengthy, but should offer praise and commendation and reflect the life of the person who has died.
Persons attending a funeral should be dressed in good taste so as to show dignity and respect for the family and the occasion. If yarmulkes are offered, it is appropriate for a man to wear one out of respect.
When the funeral ceremony and the burial are both held within the local area, friends and relatives may accompany the family to the cemetery. The procession is formed at the funeral home or temple. The funeral director can advise you of the traffic regulations and procedures to follow while driving in a funeral procession.
The time of death is a very confusing time for family members. No matter what your means of expressing your sympathy, it is important to clearly identify yourself to the family.
Flowers are generally not used in Jewish funerals.
A memorial contribution, to a specific cause or charity, is always welcomed. A large number of memorial funds are available, however the family may have expressed a preference. Memorial donations provide financial support for various projects. If recognized as a charitable institution, some gifts may be deductible for tax purposes.
Sending a card of sympathy, even if you are only an acquaintance, is appropriate. It means so much to the family members to know they are in good thoughts. The card should be in good taste and in keeping with your relationship to the family of the deceased.
A personal note of sympathy is very meaningful. Express yourself openly and sincerely. An expression such as "I'm sorry to learn of your personal loss" is welcomed by the family and can be kept with other messages.
The family should acknowledge the messages sent by relatives and friends, donations made to a charity in memory of the deceased, and anyone who has traveled a great distance to share the family’s grief. When food and personal services are donated, these thoughtful acts also should be acknowledged, as should the services of the pallbearers. The funeral director may have available printed acknowledgement cards which can be used by the family. When the sender is well known to the family, a short personal note should be written on the acknowledgment card expressing appreciation for a contribution or personal service received. The note can be short, such as:
"The food you sent was so enjoyed by our family. Your kindness is deeply appreciated."
In some communities it is a practice to insert a public thank you in the newspaper. The funeral director can assist you with this.
Children at Funerals
At a very early age, children have an awareness of and a response to death. Children should be given the option to attend the funeral service. The funeral director can advise you on how to assist children at the time of a funeral and can provide you with additional information and literature.
It is healthy to recognize death and discuss it realistically with friends and relatives. When a person dies, there is grief that needs to be shared. Expressions of sympathy and the offering of yourself to help others following the funeral are welcomed. It is important that we share our grief with one another. Your local funeral director can help family and friends locate available resources and grief recovery programs in your area.
Help a Grieving Friend
Be a listener Grieving people often find they need to talk about what's happened and how they feel about it. You don't have to fix their grief or cheer them up, but you can share the load just by being there to listen. It's all right to cry There's no need to say "be brave" or "be strong." Crying helps emotions to be released so they won't get bottled up. To give permission for tears, anger or any other emotions will let your friend know you aren't uncomfortable with their grief.
Stay In Touch
Remember that grief doesn't go away in a few short weeks. Even one year may not be long enough to adjust to changes in your life. So, a friend who calls in 3, 6, or 12 months time may be one of the few who still asks how things are going. Special days like birthdays or holidays may be just the time to pick up the phone and say, "I was thinking of you today."