Understanding Jewish funeral customs will help you know how to best honor a Jewish loved one who has passed. Learning about Jewish rituals and traditions will prepare you to properly show respect at a Jewish funeral.
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What to expect at a Jewish funeral
When a Jewish loved one dies, his or her family will likely proceed with the funeral and mourning rituals prescribed by the denomination with which the family identifies: Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Judaism. A service may begin at a funeral home or synagogue and end at the cemetery, or the whole service may be done graveside.
In general, here’s what you can expect at a Jewish funeral.
Jewish funerals happen quickly after death
Tradition, custom and Jewish law call for a funeral to take place as soon as possible after death, without embalming or other preservation. This is done in accordance with sacred Jewish scripture. The Torah reads: "You shall bury him the same day. ... His body should not remain all night." There is rarely a public viewing. However, a Jewish funeral may not occur within the first 24 hours outside of Orthodox communities.
Jewish funerals are generally not performed on Shabbat, major Jewish holidays, or the first two days and last two days of Passover. What's more, modern Jewish families may opt to give faraway family members time to travel to honor their loved one. Many feel it's incredibly important to appropriately mourn a loved one who has passed, and they will often elect to delay a funeral a few days so everyone can be together in their grief.
What to send to a Jewish funeral
Although flowers are often associated with funerals, you should not send flowers to a Jewish funeral. Rather, you may take a donation for a charity or a Jewish organization that your loved one supported. You may also send a gift of food for the family.
What to wear to a Jewish funeral
Guests usually wear all black or another dark color to a Jewish funeral. Avoid wearing flashy clothes or accessories—modest and conservative clothing is preferred. Though the dress code may be less formal at some Jewish funerals, it's often best to dress more formally than be underdressed. Men typically wear coats and ties; women wear dresses or pantsuits.
In some congregations, men of all religions who attend the funeral will wear a head covering, such as a yarmulke, which is normally available at the funeral home. Women will occasionally be asked to cover their heads as well. They may use a scarf or lace covering.
What happens at a Jewish funeral
At a typical Jewish funeral, guests don't greet close family (mother, father, spouse, children) until after the burial. At a funeral home or synagogue, these family members usually assemble in a separate room as guests arrive. After guests are seated, these mourners enter and sit at the front of the room.
The funeral service will likely include readings, prayers and a eulogy. Afterward, close family leaves before the other guests and waits separately for the procession to the cemetery. Pallbearers bring the loved one's casket out; guests will follow. Funeral attendees then proceed to the cemetery.
Throwing dirt on the casket
The casket for a Jewish funeral is usually kosher, made entirely of dovetailed wood with no metal parts. Even the glue is kosher, which means it isn’t made with animal products. Instead of the sealed burial vault used for most ground burials, a Jewish burial will incorporate a concrete grave liner with an open bottom. This allows the bottom of the casket to connect directly with the earth and decompose more quickly than were it entirely sealed.
“Because from [the ground] you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” —Genesis 3:19
Jewish custom calls for family and friends to fill the loved one's grave, rather than depending on the cemetery crew to do so. Throwing dirt onto the casket is considered an act of loving kindness. Some members of the Jewish faith feel covering their loved one with a blanket of earth is akin to a parent tucking a child into bed at night. Helping fill the grave is also part of the grieving process in Judaism.
After the casket is lowered, family and friends take turns shoveling soil into the grave. Immediate family members go first, followed by guests. Sometimes the rabbi will help. The first two or three shovels are done very delicately, not eagerly, and may be done with the shovel held upside down.
Shoveling upside down
Sometimes the shovel is put into the soil upside down or concave. The tradition is a metaphor that represents the sadness of the difficult task of burying a loved one. The mourner doesn’t want to be doing it, but nevertheless accepts the responsibility and proceeds with love.
After the funeral
After the loved one's funeral and burial, the focus shifts to providing comfort to the mourning family. There are several stages of mourning that typically occur after the passing of a Jewish loved one.
Shiva means seven in Hebrew. It is the act of observing the first seven days after the loss of a loved one. Shiva is divided into two periods. The first three days are considered a time of shock and extreme grief. The purpose of shiva is to acknowledge the intense feelings or loss and sadness.
While sitting shiva, mourners sit on low stools or boxes and do not leave home except to go to synagogue on Shabbat. They also refrain from working, grooming (shaving or cutting their hair), using cosmetics, wearing new clothing, going to festivities or partaking in leisure activities such as watching TV or reading books.
You may visit mourners who are sitting shiva, but you should wait for them to invite you to talk; don't approach them for hugs or conversation first. You can take a gift of food, since cooking is another activity mourners who are sitting shiva don't do.
Unveiling the monument
Usually sometime before the first anniversary of a death—the first yahrzeit—a Jewish family will hold an unveiling ceremony at the cemetery to reveal the loved one’s headstone or monument. Family will gather and say a prayer or someone will give a eulogy, and then the monument will be uncovered.
Placing a stone on a grave
The placing of stones or rocks on Jewish graves is a tradition that began ages ago, when early graves—like those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—were marked with mounds of stones. As a sign of caring and thoughtfulness, a visitor to the grave would place stones on the mound to replace any that may have fallen off. Now, placing a stone on a grave while visiting shows respect for the loved one buried there.
Advance planning as a mitzvah
A mitzvah is a good deed. Planning a funeral is a good deed that can’t be repaid, a category of mitzvah that's highly regarded in Judaism.
Dignity Memorial® professionals have the experience and the expertise to help you plan a Jewish funeral. Planning your own service in advance protects your loved ones from having to make these decisions for you in an emotionally stressful time, and it gives you the peace of mind of knowing that your wishes have been communicated.
Whether you would like a traditional Jewish funeral or a more personal memorial, we will walk you through the process and make sure your service honors your family's customs and traditions.