Will you be attending a Jewish funeral for the first time? If so, you may have questions or be unsure what to expect. Here is a general overview of Jewish customs and traditions surrounding death, burial, and mourning to be aware of when attending a funeral in the Jewish faith.
Jewish funeral customs can vary since there are many subsets of the religion. An orthodox funeral may have a few differences from a reform funeral. We are focusing on the major traditional customs that will help you feel comfortable attending the Jewish funeral of a friend or family member.
The belief in Judaism is that all people are created in the image of God. This includes the deceased and the mourners as well.
The Jewish religion focuses on doing good deeds during this life. In Judaism, there is no certainty as to what happens after death, and Jews are free to believe in an afterlife or not.
At the Time of Death
Burial takes place within 24 hours or as soon as possible. Nowadays a funeral may take place a few days after passing so that family members across the country can travel to the funeral.
Jewish funerals can take place at various locations. Typically a funeral service begins at the synagogue and is completed at the cemetery. It’s also common for a Jewish funeral service to be held at a funeral home before proceeding to the cemetery for burial. Some funerals are graveside only.
Jewish tradition calls for the deceased to be buried in a simple wood casket. The casket should be biodegradable, without any nails, and embalming is not allowed. The reason for these traditions is so that decomposition can take place naturally.
The casket will be closed; open caskets are not allowed. Immediate family can view the body before the service if they wish. The idea behind this practice is that, since the deceased can’t look at you, then you should not look at them.
Your presence at the funeral is meaningful to the grieving family, and attending the funeral is the most important thing you can do to support them. You don’t need to say anything to the mourners and they will be in a private room until the funeral starts. Traditionally you don’t say anything to those grieving unless they engage you first. A simple “I am so sorry” is proper. If you attend the shiva, you will have the opportunity to share memories while consoling the mourners.
Once all the funeral attendees are seated, the mourners will take their place in the front row of the synagogue.
The service will start with opening prayers.
After prayers, the rabbi or cantor will read the eulogy. The eulogy honors the deceased by capturing their spirit and brings comfort to mourning family members. After the rabbi or cantor speaks, it is common for family members and close friends to speak about the deceased.
After more prayers, the family will go back to a private room until the funeral procession begins.
At this point, the casket will be removed for the funeral procession. Please do not leave the room until the casket is escorted out first. Those that have been chosen as pallbearers will carry the casket to the hearse where it will be driven directly to the gravesite.
Immediate family members and others attending the graveside service will drive to the cemetery in a procession behind the hearse. It is considered an important mitzvah (good deed) to help loved ones to their final resting place, though you are not obligated to attend the burial. If you plan on attending the graveside ceremony, wear comfortable shoes as the ground may be soft, especially if it is raining.
The graveside service is a short, moving ceremony. Once all the attendees are at the gravesite, the pallbearers will carry the casket from the hearse to the grave. Traditionally, the pallbearers will stop seven times to acknowledge that this is a difficult task and that we are not in a hurry to finish.
The casket is then lowered into the grave and prayers are said. The traditional mourners’ kaddish (hymn of praise to God) will be recited. Feel free to say “amen” when the word occurs during the prayer.
The last act at the gravesite is symbolically filling the grave of the deceased. The cemetery will provide dirt and a shovel for mourners and attendees. Each person takes a shovelful of dirt and places it onto the grave. Some people use the backside of the shovel to show the difficulty of the task. The grave will not be completely covered, but it’s a moving ritual.
After the graveside service, those that wish will go immediately to the house of mourning to sit shiva with the family.
Shiva is a traditional seven-day mourning period for the immediate family. It is common and correct for any family members, friends, and other acquaintances to go to the home during the week-long shiva. The purpose is to help the family grieve for their loved one and prepare to re-enter the world of the living.
Nothing special is expected of shiva attendees. You being there and listening to the family talk about the deceased will be greatly appreciated. There typically is a service in the morning and one in the evening, but you can attend shiva anytime during the set hours.
It is traditional to wash your hands before entering the shiva house, and you will find a pitcher of water outside the front entrance. The custom is a superstition that has various origins.
You may notice that the mirrors in the house are covered. This comes from the idea that the family should not be concerned with personal appearances during shiva. Female mourners are not supposed to wear make-up and men are not supposed to shave.
It is customary, but not necessary, to bring food to the shiva. The idea is to bring comfort to the family and so they do not have to be concerned with taking care of their meals while they are in mourning. A dairy meal is traditional but any food is fine. Wine is also proper to bring.
Honoring the Deceased
Keep in mind that it is not part of the Jewish tradition to send sympathy flowers, either to the family or the funeral home. This tradition goes way back and is based on the idea that the funeral home and the shiva house should not be adorned with something living and beautiful. The focus should be on the deceased and the mourners.
What you can do is make a donation in the name of the deceased to a charitable organization. You honor that person’s memory when you do a good deed for the community.
Paying your respects at the funeral, visiting the family at shiva, and making a memorial donation are all meaningful ways to honor the deceased. Other ways to show your support include checking on the family during the first year of mourning and visiting the grave. When you go to the cemetery, place a stone on the headstone or grave to mark your visit.