How does a Jewish Funeral Work?

Posted: 03/10/2017

Just as cultures and religious practices differ, as do the traditions for the funeral services. In Judaism, it is believed that humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). This teaching has a huge influence on the rituals and customs of a Jewish funeral.

Jewish tradition teaches that one of the most important mitzvot (commandment) the community can do is to perform in helping the loved one find their final resting place. This happens both symbolically, and in the reality of the conduct of the service.

The order of service

The service is usually officiated by a rabbi or other learned member. While traditions may vary between the different types of Judaism (Reform, Orthodox, Chassidic), below are the typical guidelines for what the service a Jewish funeral may look like:

  • The gathering of the mourners: It is a tradition that the mourners do not greet the attendees until under the burial service. Before the service begins, the family members and those close to the deceased will gather together in a room separate to the rest until the service has officially begun.
  • Keriah (tearing): Just before the start of the service, the rabbi (or other officiants)will gather the mourners together and place a black ribbon on their outer garments to tear (in some communities the actual garment will be torn). The ribbons or torn garments are customarily worn for the first seven days of the mourning – the period of Shiva.  The officiant will explain that the act of tearing is an ancient ritual that serves variety of functions according to the laws of God: 1) Since we are beings of a physical nature, we must to do something physical to show our grief; 2) It is a visual symbol of the “tear in the fabric” of the family left by the death of a loved one; 3) It represents the separation of status. Prior to the moment of the tearing, the mourners have had the responsibility of taking care of all of the details of the funeral

for their loved one, and now this responsibility shifts to allowing the community to step in to take care of those grieving.

  • Opening prayers: The service will typically begin with the reading of appropriate biblical passages, most commonly from the book of Psalms. Then the eulogy will be delivered after a silent prayer.
  • Removal of the casket: After another prayer, the family members exit the place of service and the casket will be escorted from the room into the funeral carriage. During this procession, it is customary to recite Psalms. The attendees will next gather round the graveside to witness the casket being lowered into the grave while prayers are being recited.
  • Placing earth in the grave: The mitzvah (commandment) states that you should be “accompanying the dead for burial” is very important, so the act of placing earth into the grave is of extreme importance in the service. In some communities, everyone helps to completely cover the casket in earth. In other communities, the earth is just symbolic and everyone just places a handful onto the casket.

Burial

Jewish funerals are required to take place within 24 hours of death. However, nowadays this is not always possible due to certain circumstances so it has become more common for families to wait one or two days so that all of those wanting to attend, can. This tradition is believed to derive from Deuteronomy, where the Jewish people are commanded to bury the dead “You shall bury him on that day”.

Under Jewish law (Halachah), the body must be buried in the earth and cremation is thus forbidden. In Jewish tradition, it is preferred that the body remain ‘intact’– this includes the forbidding of tattoos and piercings in orthodoxy. This is for the purpose of when the coming of the messiah happens, triggering the messianic age, those who have passed can join the new-found state of the world, where there will be peace amongst all nations and a universal acceptance of the Jewish God. The Talmud states “You must bury him in entirety, not partially. From this verse, we extrapolate that the command was not fulfilled if the person was partially buried.” Thus, the cremation of the body would violate a biblical commandment (mitzvot).

Casket

It is taught in Jewish tradition that the dead should be buried in a simple casket. This is to represent that everyone is equal in death. The casket should also be biodegradable, made of wood and not have any nails in it at all – these are the requirements of a kosher casket.

In Judaism, an open casket is not usually permitted as a sign of respect for the dead.

Mourning

Flowers are considered an extremely important feature in a traditional British or Christian funeral, however, flowers are not permitted to be given or present at a Jewish funeral. This is because flowers die, so instead stones are placed on the grave – this represents their memory living on rather than decaying (like a flower would).

Shiva

 After the funeral, the next part of the mourning period, Shiva, begins. The family sit Shiva (meaning seven) which is a seven-day mourning period in which the family must follow a particular code of conduct. Candles in the home must be kept burning, the mirrors must be covered. The family must stay at home and are not allowed to shave or cut their hair and must sit on low stools.

During this time, other members of the family, friends and those in the community visit the home to wish each family member “a long life”. The family must sit in a line, on their low stools to greet each person offering their condolences.

A prayer, Kaddish, is said three times a day, given that the minyan is made up (a group of ten people, or ten men in orthodoxy). For the next eleven months, Kaddish is said every day. After this period, the person who passed away is remembered each year on the date of their death by reciting the Kaddish and lighting.