Jewish Funeral & Shiva Etiquette

If you're not Jewish or you're just unfamiliar with Jewish funeral customs, you may not know what's expected of you as a guest. We're here to help with what you need to know before, during and after a funeral for a Jewish loved one.

Planning ahead is a mitzvah

Let us show you how planning in advance protects those you love and ensures your service honors your traditions.

Basic etiquette tips

Inherent to Judaism is a supportive structure for grieving families. It helps create time and space for acknowledging the deep loss experienced by close loved ones. It also brings people together to begin to heal.

Jewish mourning traditions are rooted in teachings from the Torah, and gentile (non-Jewish) friends and family members are more than welcome to participate and show their love and support. That could feel intimidating, however, if you're unsure about what to expect.

Before the funeral

Jewish funerals happen quickly. The most traditional families will hold the funeral as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours of their loved one's death; modern families will often wait a few days in order to give those faraway time to travel.

Close family members will be getting ready for the funeral, maybe even helping prepare their loved one for burial, so it’s better not to contact them beforehand. Although a kind gesture, flowers are not part of the Jewish funeral tradition, so don’t send flowers to the funeral home or the family’s home.

What to wear

You're best off dressing modestly in dark colors. A suit and tie or a sports coat and dress pants are appropriate. So are dresses and skirts that fall below the knees.

If the funeral is in a synagogue, a head covering will be required for men of all religions. You don't need to worry if you don't have one—yarmulkes are usually handed out if needed. More rarely, women will wear a head covering, such as a scarf, which are also usually provided if needed.

At the funeral

A Jewish funeral is a solemn event. There's usually no conversation until after the service. Jewish families neither embalm their loved ones' bodies before burial nor display them in open caskets. There usually is, however, a closed casket at the front of the room.

A loved one's spouse, parents, children and/or siblings are considered mourners, and they sit at the front of the room or stand near the casket. Guests sit only when the family sits. The rabbi will start the funeral service by performing keriah with each mourner. This is the tradition of cutting garments (or a black ribbon) to represent a tear in their hearts. The rabbi will then pray and recite traditional psalms. A friend or family member usually gives a eulogy. You may participate in the prayers if you'd like, but do so quietly.

At the burial

There's typically a procession from the synagogue or funeral home to the cemetery, unless the entire service takes place graveside. Once the loved one, family and guests arrive at the cemetery, the rabbi will pray and the casket will be lowered into the ground.

It's customary for family and friends to shovel dirt onto the casket. This is considered a good deed, or mitzvah, ensuring that their loved one is properly buried. This act of love shows respect for a loved one while saying farewell. You and all other guests will be welcome to participate in this part of saying goodbye.

Afterward, guests form two facing rows and the loved one's family walks through. Guests comfort them by saying, “May the Omnipresent comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

After the funeral and burial

The first seven days after the death of a Jewish loved one is a period of intense grieving for that person's family. The family's focus and attention is devoted to remembering and mourning their loved one.

After the burial, the immediate family goes to the home of their loved one or another family member to sit shiva. Gentile family and friends are welcome to visit during that time.


Closeup shot of two unrecognizable people holding hands in comfort

Visiting during shiva and the shiva service

In a special ritual referred to as “sitting shiva,” mourners stay inside and focus on mourning their loved one. For seven days, they refrain from grooming, making meals, cleaning house or participating in fun activities like watching TV or playing games. The time is designated specifically for the family to remember their loved one, process the feelings of grief and support one another.

The shiva house

The family is expecting visitors, so you may usually walk right in. Visiting someone who is mourning is a wonderful way to console them—even if you don't have the perfect words to say. A hug sometimes means more than words. Simply letting them know you are there for them is enough. Focus on listening to the mourners and sharing fond memories of their loved one.

At the shiva house, you may notice some things you won't see at the home of non-Jewish mourners. For one, those sitting shiva may sit on low stools or benches. This is rooted in scripture that indicates mourning should include sitting low to the ground. Though family members aren't required to sit at all times, they may not stand up to greet you. This isn't because they aren't glad you're there; rather, they are observing this tradition.

You may also see that household mirrors are covered. This is customarily done to prevent self-centered thoughts. Rather, the focus is fully on the loved one.

A shiva organizer—usually a close friend of the family—ensures food is provided for the family during the seven days, and you can contribute if you'd like. You may eat while you're visiting a shiva home, but offer food to the mourners first. Their needs are the priority.

The shiva service

A shiva service is a prayer service that is held daily during shiva. The service can be held in the morning, afternoon or evening—possibly more than once a day. All family and friends are welcome to stay and comfort the mourners. However, a minyan or a quorum of at least 10 adult Jews must be gathered to hold the service.

Usually lasting about 20 minutes, the prayer service concludes with the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer specifically recited in honor of the deceased loved one.

Shiva gifts

You may choose to send or bring a shiva gift, such as a food basket, since the family won't be cooking their own meals. While not all Jewish families keep kosher, it's best to send kosher foods to be safe.

Your sincere kindness

Don't let nerves stop you from honoring a loved one. Showing your sincere support and encouragement for the family means far more than getting things perfect. You won't go wrong when you genuinely care and put the family first. If you aren't sure what to do, ask a funeral director.