The Jewish Funeral

Judaism is the world’s oldest surviving monotheistic religion, spanning more than 3,000 years. It is considered by the Jewish people to express the relationship God developed with the Children of Israel.

Based on centuries of tradition as well as Jewish law, the Jewish funeral is a modest, solemn religious service designed to honor the dead and provide support to the deceased’s family and friends. It is important to remember that Jewish funeral practices vary widely depending on family preferences.

Religious Tradition

Jewish law, the basis for the ceremony, requires the following:

  • The body is thoroughly washed.
  • The deceased is buried in an all-wood constructed casket.
  • The deceased is buried wearing a simple white shroud (tachrichim). Today, many families bury their loved one in clothing instead.
  • The body is watched over until burial.
  • Before the funeral begins, immediate relatives tear their garments to symbolize their loss. The rabbi may perform this ritual or present torn black ribbons to pin on their clothes.
  • Upon hearing about a death, a Jew recites the words, "Baruch dayan emet" which means “Blessed be the one true judge.”

According to tradition, burial takes place as soon as possible after death. But in today’s world, families may live far apart, so burials may be postponed to accommodate travel.

Most communities offer the services of Chevra Kaddisha, a sacred burial society that will prepare the deceased for burial.

The practice of shemira, guarding the body from death until burial, honors the dead. A family member, Chevra Kaddisha, or someone arranged by the funeral home recites from the Tehillim (Book of Psalms) while watching over the deceased.

Traditionally strictly forbidden in the Jewish faith, cremation is on the rise, even in Jewish funeral homes, so families should feel comfortable discussing this option with their provider. Although religious tradition discourages open casket funerals, families will generally have an opportunity to view their loved one privately before the burial.

The service, which generally lasts between 15 and 60 minutes, typically takes place in a funeral home and is led by the rabbi, with lay participation limited to eulogies or memorials by relatives or friends. If families are not affiliated with a particular synagogue, the funeral home will likely be able to arrange for a rabbi to perform the service.

At the simplest funeral service, the rabbi recites prayers and leads the family in the kaddish, the prayer for the deceased. The graveside service will vary, depending on the family’s background and religious affiliation. Participants may assist in filling the grave.

Jewish Funeral Etiquette

Recommended funeral attire consists of dark-colored clothing -- a dress or skirt and blouse for women, and a jacket and tie for men. Men also wear a head covering known as a yarmulke, which is provided by the funeral home.

For the majority of Jewish families, charitable donations are fitting memorial gifts.

Mourning

After the burial, Jewish families mourn by sitting shiva, generally at the home of a close family member. This was traditionally done for seven days, but many Jews now sit shiva for one or three days. Traditional Jews cover all mirrors during this time and sit on shiva benches.

Condolence visits by friends and extended family are welcomed during this period. You may bring gifts of food, but make sure it is kosher unless you’re sure the family doesn’t keep kosher.

In addition to a formal shiva, some families will “receive friends” on a more casual basis.

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