Preparing for a Jewish Funeral: A Guide
The death of a loved one is so often a painful and confusing time for members of the family and dear friends. This guide will assist you in planning the funeral as well as offer helpful information on the centuries-old Jewish burial and mourning practices.
You may also find it useful to read and print out Preparing for a Jewish Funeral: Checklist.
We recommend that you not wait until a death to attend to the details of preparing for a funeral. If you decide that you want, you need to first choose the cemetery in which you wish to be interred, the location of the plot or wall space in the cemetery, the choice of casket, flowers or lack thereof, and all financial arrangements so that in their time of grief your survivors will be relieved of the burden of making these difficult and painful decisions.
Choosing a Cemetery, Selecting a Grave and Arranging for Family Plots
Jews are buried either in a specifically Jewish cemetery or in a part of the general community cemetery designated for Jewish use. Consider a cemetery that has already been used for other family members.
Contacting the Clergy
When a death occurs the rabbi or cantor should be contacted immediately. The clergy will coordinate with the family setting the time for the funeral service in conjunction with the cemetery/mortuary. The clergy and family can also make arrangements to meet before the funeral service. Though the clergy does not have to be someone who knew the deceased personally, families often prefer an officiant who knew the deceased. Those without a connection to a synagogue will find that the mortuary will have a list of clergy who serve unaffiliated families during their time of grief.
Contacting the Mortuary and Arranging for the Funeral
The next task of the mourners is to inform the mortuary, or in Hebrew, chevra kadisha, which literally means “holy committee” or burial society/mortuary. The mortuary’s personnel will quickly send representatives to gather the body.
Funerals are usually arranged by families in consultation with the mortuary and the clergy. In some places, the mortuary, funeral home and Jewish cemetery are integrated. Even when this is not the case, the three organizations generally communicate with one another.
Preparation of the Body
A mortuary will either conduct its work in preparing the body for burial at its own facility or at a funeral home. Trained employees of the mortuary will bathe and dress the body with care and respect, according to traditional Jewish law (halachah). No natural or chemical agents are used to preserve the body. However, if the burial is to be delayed, embalming may be required and/or required by some local laws. Some mortuaries are amenable to contemporary requirements and others are not. You should choose the chevra kadisha/mortuary with which you are most comfortable.
Someone to Watch Over the Body
Customarily, a Jewish body is not left alone before burial. A shomer/shomeret, or guard, can be engaged through the Jewish mortuary to watch over the body, often while reciting psalms. Although family members may be willing to serve in this role, it is not necessary that the shomer/shomeret know the deceased person (though it is considered best if he or she is Jewish).
The Timing of the Funeral
Jewish tradition urges that the funeral and burial take place within twenty-four hours of the death out of respect for the dead, as the body begins decomposition immediately upon death. In modern times, however, mortuaries can delay this process to enable family coming from far away to make arrangements and arrive in time for the funeral, or for other extenuating circumstances, such as the time it may take to obtain burial permits where local laws require them.
The Casket and Dressing the Deceased for Burial
A traditional burial will include dressing the body in a plain white shroud (tachrichin) and a traditional untreated wooden casket that has no metal parts. Other than the shroud, the only item that may be buried along with the dead person according to Jewish law is a tallit (prayer shawl) with one of its corner fringes (tzitzit) cut. The tzitzit are removed because the dead cannot fulfill the mitzvot. (The Bibilical basis for the tzitzit is in the book of Numbers 15:38 where it is written, “Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes (i.e. tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout the ages…look at it and recall all the commandments of Adonai and observe them…”) These rules enable a natural returning of the body to the earth and emphasize the irreleUpvance of wealth and stature in death. Some families prefer to dress their loved ones in the deceased’s favorite clothing. At times, for sentimental reasons, a family may wish to include photographs or personal items in the casket. Many Reform communities are amenable to these modern practices. It is also a tradition to include a bag of earth from the Land of Israel in the casket, based on the tradition that it is a great honor to be buried in the land of Israel. You should consult with the mortuary personnel about all of these matters.
Who are the “Mourners”?
Though recognizing that an individual’s impact extends beyond his/her closest family, the Jewish definition of a “mourner” includes only first-degree relatives—parents, children, siblings, and spouses. These are the people bound to the obligations of mourners under Jewish law and tradition.
Actions to Honor the Deceased (Flowers and Tzedakah)
It is common practice today for Jews to welcome flowers at funerals. Additionally, it is customary for mourners to send donations as tzedakah to a charity favored by the deceased. The family of the deceased might indicate in an obituary notice which specific charity they would like donations to be sent. If flowers are sent, the bereaved family may ask the funeral director to donate them to a hospital or nursing home following the funeral and burial.
Clergy’s Role in the Funeral Service
Usually, the rabbi or cantor will lead the funeral prayers and deliver a eulogy. In order to prepare for these tasks, the clergy will wish to meet with family members before the funeral, either in one of their homes or at the synagogue. The clergy will ask family members to provide a description of the deceased person’s character and the lessons that may be learned from that person’s life.
The Eulogy (Hesped)
The eulogy (Greek for “nice words” or “praise”) or hesped (Hebrew for “beating the breast”) is among the most important elements in a funeral service. It should offer praise but not excessive praise, evoke the deceased’s essential qualities and virtues, passions, interests and hobbies, community involvements and contributions, and the names of the most important family members and closest friends should be noted. It should reflect as well what the deceased would want to say to his/her children, grandchildren, and friends, as a summary of his/her life. The hesped is expected to evoke honestly the character and nature of the deceased.
Prayers Said at the Funeral and Burial
Both traditional and modern readings are read by clergy at the funeral service and include passages from the book of Psalms (16, 23, 37, 90, 103, 121, and 144). The memorial prayer (Eil Maleh Rachamim) includes the Hebrew name of the deceased and affirms that the soul of the departed has been gathered unto God. The Mourner’s Kaddish is said at graveside.
Music or Video at the Funeral
The funeral service is enhanced by having the cantor or rabbi sing psalms, other appropriate music and the traditional Eil Maleh Rachamim. Other musical selections should be arranged with the clergy or mortuary. Mortuaries may also be able to recommend a service for creating a video remembrance of the departed that can be shown at the funeral.
The casket is closed before Jewish funeral services begin for two reasons; one is out of respect for the deceased, that he/she should not be viewed as an object; and the other is that once the funeral service begins, the process of mourning also begins. Mourning the loss of a loved one is very painful. Yet, the pain is a necessary aspect of the mourning and should not be delayed in any way.
Expense of Funerals
There are many options available to mourners when planning a funeral. As a general rule those who plan their own funerals or that of a loved one after death should not spend any more money than is necessary for a dignified funeral and burial. Rather than spending added dollars for a very expensive casket, or a cache of flowers, we recommend saving those dollars for the living or contributing those dollars as tzedakah in memory of the deceased to causes that he/she valued. However, even doing so funeral services can be expensive. For the indigent, most Jewish cemeteries will provide funerals for little or no fee.
The Death of a Child
There is nothing more tragic and painful than the death of a child. Many Jewish cemeteries will provide funeral services free of charge for stillborn children and children under the age of 13 years old, the age of maturity according to Jewish tradition.
It is a tradition to choose six or eight people excluding the immediate mourners who were close to the deceased to serve as pallbearers to help carry and escort the casket from the funeral service to the gravesite. In addition, honorary pallbearers may also be chosen. There is a tendency to choose only men for this honor, but there is no religious reason that women should not be equally considered.
K’riah, (Literally, “Tearing”), Ribbon for Mourners
Tearing a garment or ribbon is a tradition of ancient origin signifying that the individual is a first order relative of the deceased. If mourners would like to rip a garment in the traditional manner (e.g., a shirt or sweater) for k’riah, then they should wear that article to the funeral (with appropriate garments underneath, for the sake of modesty). Instead of tearing one’s clothing, one can wear a black ribbon (provided by the mortuary) to tear for k’riah. This custom is reserved for immediate mourners (i.e., spouse, parent, child, and sibling). The garment/ribbon is torn before burial and the saying of the Mourner’s Kaddish. One tears and says:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam dayan ha-emet.
Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, the true Judge.
The k’riah garment/ribbon is worn over the right breast by the spouse, parents and siblings, and over the heart by children of the deceased. It is worn every day during the shiva period (seven days) but not on Shabbat or holy days. If other Jewish holidays intervene during shiva the period of mourning is reduced. Please consult with the rabbi/cantor.
The Mourner’s Kaddish
This prayer is a defiant declaration of faith and is often necessary for mourners at the time of the loss of their loved ones when there is a tendency to deny God’s presence and goodness. There is no mention of death in this prayer. Rather, it affirms God’s Name as manifest in every place and at every instant, even at our darkest moments of loss, anger, fear, despair, and confusion. It expresses our obligation to nurture a world that is filled with holiness. Mourners proclaim the Kaddish as the body of their loved ones is interred in the earth. The prayer is written in Aramaic using Hebrew letters, the colloquial language of Jews during Talmudic times.
Filling the Grave
At the conclusion of the service the casket is physically lowered into the grave in the presence of the mourners, a heart-wrenching moment. However, witnessing this act promotes the acceptance of the finality of death. The family begins the burial by placing earth either by hand or by a shovel as a final act of kindness for the deceased who can no longer care for him/herself. There is a custom of mourners and attendees filling the entire grave as an act of respect for the deceased. While in some casese and at some cemeteries this tradition is followed, it is not always possible. When possible, it is best to discuss this with your clergy in advance of the funeral. There is also a custom that the first person who places earth on a grave turns the shovel upside down. This act reflects the deep reluctance a loved one feels to perform this mitzvah. Customarily three handfuls or shovels of earth are the minimum per person. If using a shovel, the person placing earth returns the shovel to the earth and not directly to the next mourner signifying that he/she has performed the complete mitzvah in burial. All are welcome to perform the mitzvah of burial.
Children at Funerals and Burial
It is important that children of sufficient age and maturity attend funeral services and burial. If very young children are to attend the funeral, however, parents should arrange to seat them with a babysitter or another responsible adult who will not mind leaving the service if the children are restless or upset. It is recommended that children over the age of eight years old in most cases are capable of attending funeral services and burial, and should do so. The rabbis and cantor should be able to speak with the children before the funeral to explain what they will witness.
Etiquette at Funerals
Funeral services start on time and one should plan to arrive early. In most cases, one should not expect to greet the family before or after the funeral service, or at the burial. Offer your comfort by visiting the shiva home. Pay attention for announcements of shiva location and times, and for organizations to which you might make a contribution as tzedakah (righteous giving) in honor of the deceased.
There will be a processional to the gravesite if the funeral was not a graveside ceremony. When possible it is a mitzvah to go to the cemetery and gravesite and participate in the burial itself, and to shovel dirt into the grave with your hands or with a shovel (see above). As the mourners leave the gravesite they often walk between two rows of those attending the burial. It is customary to say as they pass by you:
"Ha-Makom y’nahem et’chem b’toch sha’ar av’lei Tzion viY’rushalayim
May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."
It is customary to wash one’s hands when leaving a cemetery (most Jewish cemeteries have a water fountain at the exit for this purpose – no blessing is said when doing this act), before you enter the shiva home (it is customary for mourners to provide outside the front door of the home a water pitcher, pot and paper towels for people to use before entering), or in your own home if you are not going directly to the shiva home. This custom is based in an old superstition that demons lurk in cemeteries and seek to attach themselves to the living under their fingernails. The water is thus called nagelwasser (literally, “nail-water”). It is also a symbolic washing of tum-ah (ritual impurity caused by contact with the dead) from one’s own body and soul. In modern times, washing one’s hands represents a transition from one state of being to another.
Arranging for a Traditional Meal After the Funeral
Many families, including some who are not observing shiva (the traditional seven days of mourning that commence immediately after burial) welcome visitors at the family home after the funeral service for a traditional meal, called a seudat hav’ra-ah (meal of healing). This meal is mostly intended for the mourners, who may feel too saddened to eat if left alone. The community is present and required to provide the food for the mourners, encourage them to take care of their own physical needs and usher mourners into a new stage in their lives. There is a tendency in many places for families to engage a caterer to provide for this meal. However, it is best for extended family members, synagogue members or friends to arrange the meal. Mourners should not arrange for the food, greet or entertain guests. You should consult with the clergy about appropriate foods at the home and kosher sensitivities when ordering food. For example, it is suggested that you not order pork products, shellfish, or platters that contain both meat and cheese together.
This article was excerpted from the booklet When Jews Divorce and is part of the series Transitions & Celebrations: Jewish Life Cycle Guides, by Rabbi John L. Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, CA. Download this booklet and the full series on the Temple Israel of Hollywood website (see Writings by Rabbi Rosove).
Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed his duties as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in November 1988. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley (1972), a Masters in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, LA (1976), Rabbinic Ordination from HUC-JIR, NY (1979), and a Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR, LA (2004). His mission has been to build Jewish community and draw Jews and their families closer to God, the Torah, Jewish tradition, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel as a Jewish national home. He regards social justice work and high ethical practices as essential core Jewish religious values. Learn more about Rabbi Rosove and Temple Israel of Hollywood.