Jewish Funeral Customs
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Jewish tradition requires that we honor the deceased by not leaving the body unattended. A Shomer, or guardian, stays with the deceased from the time of death until the funeral and burial. The solemn watch over a body is traditionally a silent one except for the reading of psalms. Occupation with this mitzvah exempts the Shomerim from eating, drinking, or performing any other positive commandments, such as the obligation to pray. It would be considered mocking the deceased since they can no longer participate in such activities.
Most Jewish communities have a special group of pious men and women known as the Chevra Kadisha or “Holy Society” who have taken on the obligation of ritually preparing the body of the deceased. They perform the Taharah or purification process and then dress the person in Tachrichim, the traditional burial garments. Usually made of white, pure linen, the Tachrichim symbolize that we are all equal in death. The simple white garment without pockets is physical proof that we take nothing with us when we leave this world and that God judges us on our merits and deeds, not the material wealth we may have accumulated while we were alive.
The Jewish funeral service is a relatively brief and simple service designed primarily for the honor and dignity of the deceased. Respect is always shown to the deceased and is one of the main reasons why Jewish funerals are held so soon after death. It is more respectful to inter the body within a reasonable amount of time rather than having an unnecessary delay. Open caskets are forbidden by Jewish law as it would be disrespectful to allow any enemies of the dead to view them in their helpless state.
Keriah, the custom of first-degree relatives tearing a visible portion of clothing or a ribbon prior to the start of the funeral, is a centuries old symbol of inner grief and mourning. Traditionally, children of the deceased make a visible tear on the left side over the heart, symbolizing the fact that their hearts are torn open by grief. All other mourners make a tear on the right side which need not be visible. Mourners stand during the ritual to signify strength at the time of grief as well as respect for the deceased. Rending of one’s garments also acts as a visible marker to others that a person is in mourning, thus allowing them to appropriately modify their interactions.
The actual burial, or Kevura, should take place as soon as possible after the death. Based on the biblical verse “For dust you are and to dust you shall return,” Jewish tradition has maintained that the dead must be buried in the earth. There should be a natural decomposition of the body and therefore cremation and embalming are forbidden. After the casket has been fully lowered into the grave, the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited in memory of the dead. The prayer itself has nothing to do with death or mourning but rather reaffirms one’s faith in God during this difficult time.
The custom of shoveling earth into the grave is an essential part of the Jewish burial ceremony and the last physical act of kindness that we can do for the departed. Traditionally, those present at the funeral take the back of the shovel, symbolizing that this use of the shovel is different from all other uses, to throw three measures of dirt into the grave. Once finished, the shovel is put back in the mound of dirt rather than handing it to the next person so that one’s grief isn’t passed along. Participating in this mitzvah had been shown to be of great psychological benefit for mourners since it serves as an important action of finality and closure.
After the burial, it is custom for those in attendance who are not mourners to form a Shura, or a double line facing each other. As the mourners walk through this pathway, those present recite the traditional words of comfort, “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
There are many customs and traditions that surround returning from the cemetery. The custom of washing hands after the funeral, for instance, is a symbolic act of purification which separates the mitzvah of honoring the dead from the mitzvah of comforting the bereaved. It is proper to pour water three times over each hand, alternating hands each time, in order to focus on life. According to tradition, one of the reasons for this custom is to wash off the demons that may have attached themselves at the cemetery. Another is to symbolically state that our hands are clean and we had no responsibility for the death of the deceased.
The custom of covering mirrors during Shiva began centuries ago and was based on a belief that spirits were attracted to mirrors. Some people thought that the soul could be trapped in the reflection or that the dead person’s spirit lingered on earth for a time and might reach out from the other side. A more practical explanation is that covering mirrors reminds mourners to look to others for sympathy, encourages inner reflection and discourages vanity. Mourners should not be concerned about their physical appearance at a time when they typically feel their worst.
One of the oldest and most important customs is providing the traditional meal of consolation to the mourners upon their return from the interment. It is customary for this meal, or Seudat Havraah, to be dairy and should include round foods such as hard boiled eggs, lentils or bagels which are symbolic of the cyclical or continuous nature of life. One of the reasons for providing this meal was the recognition that if left to the mourners’ own wills, they may not eat and would then become ill themselves. Although the bereaved tend to be uninterested in eating, this meal is served by friends and is meant to signify that life must go on.
The first stage of Jewish mourning is the time between death and burial. This period, known as Aninut, is typically the most intense period of mourning and is designed to help the mourner acknowledge and accept the pain and loss. Jewish law formally considers the bereaved to be those who have lost any one of the seven closest relatives: father, mother, spouse, brother, sister, son and daughter. Those in Aninut are considered an Onen or bereaved person until the burial at which time they officially become an Avel or mourner. The main obligation of an Onen is to arrange for the proper Jewish burial of the deceased.
Shiva, the second stage of Jewish mourning, begins after the burial and extends to the morning of the seventh day. Although no public mourning is observed on the Sabbath, it is counted towards the seven day period. During this time, the mourner takes an almost complete break from the routines and involvements of everyday life to focus exclusively on the memory of the departed. He emerges from the stage of intense grief to a new state of mind in which he is prepared to talk about his loss and to accept comfort from friends and neighbors. To mark the end of Shiva, it is customary for the mourners to take a short walk around the neighborhood, as a way of taking a first step back into the world.
The third stage of Jewish mourning, or Sheloshim, consists of the thirty days following burial and includes the seven days of Shiva. The period from the end of Shiva to the end of Sheloshim is one of transition from deep bereavement to resuming life’s normal routine. This is the time when mourners gradually return to work or school and begin living without their loved one.
The final stage of Jewish mourning, Avelut, is observed only for the loss of a parent. This period lasts for an additional eleven months after Sheloshim. During this time, mourners avoid parties, celebrations, theater and concerts. After the Avelut period is complete, the family of the deceased is not permitted to continue formal mourning.
The annual anniversary of a relative’s death is known as Yahrzeit. The date, which is calculated according to the Jewish calendar, is based on the actual day of death and not the burial. The main expressions for honoring the memory of the deceased during Yahrzeit are reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish and lighting a special memorial candle the evening before the Yahrzeit that burns for twenty-four hours.
The process of publicly reciting prayers as a community by those who have
lost either one or both of their parents is known as Yizkor. This service
of “remembrance” is held four times a year on Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret
and on the last days of Passover and Shavuot. The Yizkor memorial prayers
ask God to remember and grant repose to the souls of the departed.
> View Yizkor Calendar
Jewish law requires that a grave marker be prepared so that the deceased will not be forgotten and the grave will not be desecrated. It is customary for the marker to be put in place and for an unveiling ceremony to be held at the end of the twelve month mourning period. The idea underlying this custom is that the dead will not be forgotten when he is being mourned every day. The unveiling ceremony consists of the recitation of Psalms, a very brief eulogy and removing the cloth covering the headstone. It is also customary, before leaving the gravesite, to place a small stone on the marker to indicate that someone has visited the grave.
Judaism teaches that mourners should not show excessive grief and should avoid deifying the deceased. To this end, cemetery visitation should not be too frequent. While visitation is permitted at almost any time, it is considered especially appropriate to visit the graves of loved ones on the conclusion of Shiva, the last day of Sheloshim, on Yahrzeit and before or between the High Holy Days. It is traditional that when one attends a burial, visiting the graves of others who are buried in the cemetery should not take place. The purpose of this is to show respect for both the person who is being buried as well as the person who was previously interred.
There is a close connection between Tzedakah or “righteous giving” and Jewish mourning customs. Tzedakah is a way to make one’s memory tangible. It is appropriate to honor the deceased by making a contribution to a synagogue, organization, hospital or a medical research association for the disease which afflicted the deceased. This method of tribute creates a living memorial which keeps their beliefs alive and active.