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February 1, 2018 Beyond The Dash

Jewish Funeral Practices and Traditions

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Jewish Funeral Practices and Traditions
Because cremation is considered desecration of a body, Jewish folks are almost always buried. (Shutterstock)

The Jewish religion has very specific instructions for all manners of social comportment. It is no different when it comes to funerals. In this article, we will discuss the Jewish mourning process.


All families process grief differently


Although the Torah offers guidelines that apply to all aspects of daily life, Jewish law requires believers to respect local laws in their practice of faith. The information presented below reflects the typical funeral rites that occur in honor of a deceased Jewish person, but in reading, please remember that these customs could vary by family and location. 


When do Jewish funerals happen?


When a Jewish person dies, their rabbi is typically notified as soon as possible to begin making arrangements. Burials should be held as soon as possible after death. Ideally, within one day. 


There are exceptions, however. If the closest family members are not able to attend immediately, the funeral can be postponed to allow for travel time. Funerals are not held on the Shabbat or on Jewish holidays, so a ceremony may also have to wait if there isn't enough time to prepare in advance of a holy day. 


Medical considerations


Generally, the donation of organs or a corpse for medical research or procedures is acceptable, as these are considered good deeds. 


Jewish folks consider routine autopsies as desecration of a body. An autopsy must not be performed on a Jewish person unless legally necessary, in which case a rabbi can be present during the procedure to ensure unnecessary desecration of the corpse does not occur.


Neshama 


From the time a Jewish person passes away to the time they are buried, special care is taken to respect the corpse. 


In the Jewish faith, the neshama (soul) of a person is contained in their body during life. When they die, the neshama hovers around the body until it is buried. Because the essence of the deceased person is still present with the body, mourners are still conscious of the feelings of the deceased person during this time. It is crucial, then, to treat the body with the same respect as you would the person who recently occupied it. The body will not be left alone from the time of death to the time of burial. 


Chevra kadisha


The chevra kadisha is a committee of Jewish people whose job it is to prepare deceased folks for burial. They act in accordance with Jewish law to ensure the corpse is afforded respect, and not desecrated either intentionally or accidentally. This includes careful cleansing and dressing of the body before it is buried. 


The work of the chevra kadisha is of utmost importance, as it is a service that the living perform for the dead which can never be returned. The unselfish act is admired and revered as a "good deed of truth." They will cleanse the corpse of any dirt or bodily fluids, but do not embalm. Then the body is dressed in a white muslin tachrichim, or shroud. 


Once dressed, the casket is closed. Jewish people are usually laid to rest in a simple, biodegradable pine box or coffin. The type of wood is less significant than the box being made of kosher materials. Instead of metal nails, the box will be constructed and held together with kosher glue. 


Jews are usually buried in a simple pine coffin, bonded with kosher glue. (Shutterstock)


Cremation


Orthodox Jews do not believe in cremation as a method of handling a body. Reform Jews are opting for cremation more frequently. It depends on the individual's wishes, and the services their rabbi is willing to perform.  


Keriah


Before burial, a gathering is held at the mourner’s house, which typically involves reflective services. Members of the family will tear garments or a black ribbon attached to their clothing to symbolize their mourning. Sometimes the rabbi will tear a ribbon and mourners will pin the pieces over their hearts. They will wear this through the seven-day shiva.


Funeral


A Jewish funeral can be held anywhere, but typically occurs at a synagogue or funeral home. The rabbi will preside, reciting the Memorial Prayer and the Mourner's Blessing and reflecting on the life of the deceased person.


People who knew the deceased will deliver a eulogy in honor of the deceased person that celebrate the life of the deceased person and share the grief that has been caused by the loss. This eulogy usually contains prayers, psalms as well as anecdotes based on the life of the dead person.  


Families typically request charitable donations in lieu of flowers from guests. 


Expressing grief for the loss and comfort to the direct family members in mourning is especially important at a Jewish funeral. The very presence of guests is a symbol of grief and condolences to the family, making funeral attendance in itself an important part of Jewish mourning. 


The funeral will proceed to the gravesite for interment. There are more prayers at the gravesite, and earth is sprinkled on the lowered casket. Dropping clods of earth on the casket is a final act of service that Jewish mourners will perform for their deceased loved one. 


Mourning conventions


Aninut


Aninut, meaning "intense mourning," is the first stage of bereavement Jewish folks observe. This period lasts from the time of the death to the time of burial. This time allows for the shock and disbelief of loss. Mourners in this period are exempt from some religious customs that would otherwise be required. They can devote themselves to funeral arrangements, and their grief. 


Avelut


Avelut is a time in which mourners refrain from attending social gatherings, such as weddings. It consists of shiva, shloshim and shneim asar chodesh. Although celebrations are abstained from, certain holidays can interrupt and end the mourning period. If a wedding was scheduled during a mourning period, for example, it will not be canceled, as with other celebrations like Rosh Hashanah.


Shiva


Shiva begins immediately after the deceased person is laid to rest. After the funeral, the family proceeds to the house where shiva will be observed. 


Shiva is Hebrew for "seven." It is a sitting mourning period that last seven days for direct relatives of a deceased person, including spouse, father, mother, brother, sister and children who have reached bar/bat mitzvah age. 


These first-degree family members will sit on low shiva chairs and receive condolences from visitors, while processing their own personal grief. Mourners generally stay at the house for the entire period of shiva. During this time, they reflect on their loss and pray for the departed soul. 


The family recites the Mourner’s Kaddish out of respect for the departed soul, to ponder the honor and life of the remaining family members. To support the bereaved, extended family members visit the shiva home during a planned time period. 


Guests will arrive without greeting the family in mourning, waiting for those in deep mourning to initiate conversation. If conversation begins, guests are free to share memories and discuss their character, although this doesn't have to be the only topic during shiva


In addition to this tradition, the immediate families of the deceased continue another 30 days mourning period, which goes on until next year.


Each practice of shiva is different. This is mainly due to the nature of loss and timing of the death as well. 


Sheloshim


When the seventh day of mourning concludes, shiva ends and sheloshim continues. Sheloshim is a 30-day additional time of mourning, and includes shiva's seven days. During this time, mourners abide by certain restrictions prohibiting activities like cutting their hair, marrying or attend celebratory religious meals.


During sheloshim, mourners will learn Torah in honor of the deceased person and recite prayers for them. They believe that the dead person's neshama can benefit of prayers within the first year of death. 


Shneim asar chodesh


Shneim asar chodesh refers to the 12-month period following the death. While there are some restrictions that mourners will abide by during this time, life gradually returns to normal for those in mourning. 


A final word


Every family is different. The degree to which funeral rites will be observed depends on both the deceased's character, as well as their family's values and the specific rabbi presiding. Use this information as a general guide when attending a Jewish funeral, or visiting a family sitting in shiva


 

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