Planning & Arranging
a Jewish Funeral
Jewish funeral traditions differ
to traditional Christian funeral rituals, and therefore it is more respectful
and deserving of your lost loved one to ensure that the funeral is handled
by a funeral professional who is familiar with the sensitive nature of
Jewish funeral rituals.
Understanding the ritual
of a Jewish funeral.
There are some fundamental differences
in arranging a Jewish funeral, and we have outlined some of the basic customs
and rituals in this section, in order to clarify what happens when someone
from the Judaism faith passes.
Kavod Ha-Met, which means
‘Honoring the Dead’ encompasses the sanctity of how the treatment of the
deceased’s body is done with the utmost respect and care, which is paramount
to how a Jewish funeral is coordinated.
In Jewish custom the death
process is considered a natural cycle, and therefore kept as simple and
natural as possible. No chemicals are used to embalm or prepare the
body. The deceased is dressed in simple, natural white linen, and
the casket or coffin is made from natural wood without any metal.
In this means, the deceased can most naturally be returned to the earth
to complete their life cycle.
It is because of these customs
that a Jewish funeral is usually conducted as soon as possible after the
death has occurred. It is considered far more respectful and dignified
to bury or cremate the body as quickly as can be arranged.
If necessary a funeral may
be delayed to accommodate mourners and family traveling from further afield,
and this decision will usually be made in conjunction with the attending
According to Jewish tradition
the deceased should not be left unattended following death. A ‘Shomer’,
otherwise known as ‘watchman’ stays with the deceased until the burial
or cremation takes place. In many Jewish families the immediate family
carries out the role/s of the Shomer, but this can be provided by the funeral
home conducting the service if necessary or if the family so wishes.
In compliance with Judaism
a mourner is defined as being Kaddish related, this means that they are
closely related to the deceased and obligated to observe the rites of mourning.
It is usually defined that this is the spouse, parent, brother, sister
or child of the deceased. Other family members can, of course, observe
the rites of mourning although according to tradition they are not technically
From the moment of death
until the deceased is buried, a mourner is considered an Onen and it is
their main obligation to ensure a proper Jewish funeral is conducted.
The Onen are therefore released from many of their normal obligations at
this time to dedicate themselves to their duties as a mourner.
As Jewish tradition teaches
us that to look at a person who cannot return your gaze is disrespectful,
a viewing or visitation of the deceased is not a part of the funeral ritual.
A traditional Jewish funeral therefore ordinarily has a closed casket or
coffin. A viewing of the deceased is generally only facilitated for
the family and for the purposes of identification.
How is the body prepared
for a Jewish funeral?
It is part of Jewish custom
to refrain from the process of embalming unless there is a specific reason
why it must be done. Embalming with chemicals is considered an unnatural
way of preparing the deceased’s body.
Instead the Taharah is performed,
this is a sacred ritual of bathing and dressing the deceased. The
Taharah is a purification ritual and if required the Chevra Kadisha (a
sacred society of men and women who perform this burial ritual) can be
contacted to provide this ritual. It can also be referred to as the Rehisa
(meaning the bathing). Male members would attend to the body of a
deceased male, just as female members attend to the body of a deceased
Once the deceased has been
ritualistically bathed, he or she is dressed in the Tachrichim, which is
the traditional burial garment or the ‘burial shroud’. This ‘shroud’
is typically made of just plain white linen, and the significance of the
Tachrichim is to signify that we are all equal in death, it also has no
pockets to symbolize that we leave this world with no material wealth and
are judged by God only by the merits and deeds performed during our life.
The bathing and cleansing
ritual is in keeping with Ecclesiastes statement “As he came, so shall
he go” and symbolizes how as a newborn infant enters this world pure and
clean and is immediately washed, so as the deceased leaves this world the
bathing process ensures he or she leaves cleansed.
The ritualistic act of bathing
and preparing the deceased is considered an act of respect and ultimate
kindness, as doing so is done with the knowledge that this act cannot be
repaid or returned by the deceased. This signifies that the preparation
of the deceased’s body is an act of complete selflessness and therefore
Jewish tradition requires
just a simple wooden casket or coffin for the body to be buried in.
Otherwise known as the ‘Aron’, this is again in keeping with the custom
of simplicity and a more organic, natural process. Traditional Jewish
caskets can be anything from unfinished pine, to polished walnut or mahogany.
Ordinarily the casket or coffin should not have any metal parts on it.
The Jewish Funeral Service
The actual funeral service ordinarily
lasts about 20-30 minutes. During this time there will be a scripture
reading, reciting of Psalms and a eulogy to the deceased. Either
just before, or just after, the funeral service the mourners will perform
the ritual of K’riah, which is the tearing of the mourning garment as a
grief metaphor. The ripping of the garment is symbolic of the tear
within the mourner’s heart.
These days mourners typically
use a black ribbon attached to the front of their funeral attire.
If someone of the Jewish faith has lost a parent, the tear is on the left
side, for all other relatives the tear is placed on the right side.
This is to help demonstrate that our relationship with our parent is different
and that the metaphorical tear is felt closer to our heart.
If you see someone with torn
clothes or a ribbon, you should offer your condolences even if you are
unfamiliar with the person.
When the tearing is performed
a special prayer is recited, the Dayan Ha’emet, which means ‘Blessed is
the Judge of Truth’. The ribbon or the torn clothing is traditionally
worn for 7 days unless mourning a parent, when it is traditionally worn
for 30 days.
After the service the mourners
accompany the deceased to their final resting place, and the Kaddish prayer
is recited once the casket has been lowered into the ground and the earth
Like the ritual bathing of
the deceased, the Chesed Shel Emet, is the ultimate act of kindness and
is the ritual of those attending to participate in the actual burial.
To do this many choose to shovel some earth onto the casket once it has
been lowered into the ground.
It is believed in Jewish
custom that the mourners actually both witnessing, and participating in,
the lowering of the casket and the filling in of the earth, helps give
a much better sense of closure and completeness of the funeral process.
As the mourners leave the
gravesite it is custom for those attending who are not formal mourners
to form a Shura, a double line facing each other, and create a pathway
that the mourners can walk through to receive some words of comfort.
This is traditionally the first formal opportunity to offer words of condolence
to the mourners, and the typical words to offer are such as “May you be
comforted among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”.
Jewish Customs and Rituals
that follow the burial
There are a number of traditional
customs and rituals that may follow the actual burial. These range
from covering all the mirrors in the house, having a jug of water outside
the house for mourners to wash their hands, to choosing a different way
home from the cemetery. Some of these are more superstitions than
customs and you should talk to your rabbi about which customs you would
like to observe.
One of the most popular and
significant customs is that the Jewish community have on returning to the
home of the mourners is to provide the first meal. This is typically
a meal including eggs and bagels, which are to symbolize the continuity
of life. This meal is known as the Seudat Hawra’ah and started as
a means to ensure the recently bereaved did eat a proper meal and not neglect
their own welfare.
Shiva – the immediate period
of mourning after the death has occurred
Shiva is part of the formal
tradition of a Jewish funeral. Shiva means seven and represents the
period of mourning immediately following the burial, and which should last
for 7 days. During Shiva mourners remain at home and their Jewish
community will rally around and provide comfort and support.
Some Jewish festivals and
the Sabbath can affect the exact number of days that Shiva will be observed,
and your rabbi will usually advise you if this affects your period of mourning.
It is expected for mourners
to remain in the home except to attend the synagogue if Shiva falls over
a Shabbat. Otherwise the community visits those sitting Shiva to
carry out three daily services of prayers. The Kaddish prayer is
recited to provide comfort to the mourners.
It is custom to ensure that
an ambience of dignity and sobriety remains during Shiva and that talk
should focus on the deceased. Shiva is a time to remember the recently
deceased and it is the Jewish custom to celebrate the life of the deceased
by spending this time talking about them. This may seem contrary
to how we ordinarily mourn where sometimes we refrain from mentioning the
deceased for fear of upsetting those mourning.
It is custom during Shiva
to bring or send food gift baskets to those sitting Shiva. This is
a way of showing you care and providing practical support.
Shloshim – the following
period of mourning
Shloshim actually means thirty
in Hebrew, and represents the thirty days following the burial, and follows
on from Shiva. For this period of mourning, again some festivals
may affect the exact period, and your rabbi will advise you.
Shloshim signifies the period
of re-adaptation to the ‘world of the living’ for the mourner where they
return to normal duties and activities. During Shloslim it is custom
to refrain from any gaiety and celebratory activities.
Yahrzeit – the anniversary
of the death
In Hebrew Yahrzeit represents
the annual anniversary of the death of a person. It is custom to
light a 24-hour candle on the evening before the day of Yahrzeit, to recite
the Kaddish prayer and observe a few moments of reflection.
Can a Jewish Cremation
Yes, indeed cremations are becoming
more common as an alternative to a traditional burial service. A
Jewish cremation can be conducted adhering to Jewish funeral customs and
rituals. In this case the deceased’s ashes are returned to the family,
usually within 48 hours, in order that they can be scattered or appropriately
interred. A cremation can be performed after a traditional service
in the synagogue or temple, or alternatively you can opt to have the cremation
conducted and then arrange a memorial service afterwards. This will
cost less, as there is no body present, so you do not need to incur the
costs of a casket, transportation of the body, or any type of preparation.
You can arrange to have a private viewing of the deceased just prior to
their cremation to say your last goodbye.
Can a body be transported
to Israel for a Jewish burial?
Yes, as with the transfer of
the deceased if the death occurred away from home, a body can also be flown
to Israel for a Jewish burial if this is required.
Your Jewish funeral director
will make all the necessary arrangements and complete the required consulate
Should funeral flowers
be sent to a Jewish funeral?
Generally no, funeral flowers
are considered an unnecessary adornment. However, some Conservative
and Reform Jews are opting to have a small floral tribute to be placed
on the casket, this is at the discretion of the rabbi.
It is more common for fruit
and food gift baskets to be sent to the immediate family during the period
of Shiva as a means to express condolences and offer sympathies.
How do I find and select
a Jewish Cemetery?
There are a number of dedicated
Jewish Cemeteries around the United States. We have provided a directory
for each state and city that lists the Jewish Cemeteries in your area.
If you have not already pre-purchased a burial plot, you can consult with
your funeral director, who will be able to assist you in selecting which
cemetery may best suit your needs and requirements.
What is the Jewish custom
for dedicating a headstone or grave marker?
Jewish tradition calls for the
marking of a grave or burial plot with a headstone or grave marker, known
in Hebrew as a Matzava. It is not formally required as Jewish custom
to hold an unveiling and dedication of the Matzava, although it is common
practice to do so. The dedication can take place at any time after
Shiva, but as most cemeteries rules and regulations do require an extended
period of time before a monument can be erected to allow for ground settlement,
the formal unveiling and dedication ordinarily takes place as close as
possible to the first Yahrzeit.
The headstone can be as simple
or elaborate as the family desires, but must, of course, conform to the
cemetery regulations. Usually the deceased’s name is inscribed in
Hebrew, along with the dates of birth and death and any further personal
It is not Jewish custom to
excessively visit a grave, and when attending a burial it is not proper
to visit the graves of others buried at the cemetery. It is considered
disrespectful to the person who has died. This is, however, waivered
if someone has traveled extensively to attend the funeral.