Jewish funeral etiquette dictates that the funerals are solemn and not social events, The family sits Shiva after the burial, so mourners should stop by the home and bring no flowers or gifts aside from donations of food. Conversation should be limited to paying respect to the deceased.
Death is seen as a natural process in Judaism, even though life is extremely precious. Both life and death are part of a divine plan, and death opens the door to an afterlife where those who have lived worthy lives will receive their reward.
Once someone has died, burial is within a day, but the speedy exodus from this life does not mean a quick exit from the hearts and minds of loved ones. Death is met with centuries of Jewish funeral etiquette based on the Torah.
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Is There a Jewish Wake?
Upon death, the local synagogue the deceased belonged to is helpful in making funeral arrangements.
Someone from the synagogue or a family member will contact the funeral home, whose duties vary somewhat from other funerals. The funeral director does not use any embalming fluid to prepare the body for visitation, as those of the Jewish faith do not usually have wakes.
Before the body goes to the funeral for burial services, members of the Chevra Kadisha, a sacred burial society, perform a ritual washing (taharah) in a process called rechitazah.
After the ritual cleansing, the body is dressed in a simple white burial shroud that is made of linen or muslin and called a tachrichim. All deceased Jews, rich or poor, leave this world in the same simple garment.
Men are also buried in a religious skullcap known as a yarmulke or kippah, as well as with a prayer shawl called a tallit or tallis. One of the fringes of the prayer shawl is cut off to signify that the wearer will no longer use it for prayer and is released from having to observe the mitzvot or commandments.
During the rechitzah, members of Chevra Kaddisha, immediate family, or funeral home staff recite psalms and watch over the deceased.
Mourning Rituals Or Keriah For the Immediate Family
The family members participate in a ritual known as keriah before the funeral service. In this rite, a visible part of the clothing, such as the lapel, collar, or pocket, is torn as a symbol of mourning. A modern slant on this practice is that a black ribbon is torn rather than the clothing itself.
If you are mourning the death of a parent, the torn article is affixed to the left side of your chest. All other family members affix the ribbon on the right (or have the tear on that side of the body). This torn article should be worn throughout the entire shiva.
What Do Attendees Know About a Jewish Funeral?
If you are not a Jewish person, you should know some basics before attending a traditional Jewish funeral:
- Jews are laid to rest in simple wooden caskets, and the casket will be closed for the service.
- All men should wear a head covering called a yarmulke at the synagogue and gravesite.
- Guests should be quiet and reserved during the service and Jewish burial.
- After the burial, the rabbi may ask guests to stand in two lines. The immediate family leaves passing through these lines to remind them they are not mourning alone.
- The eulogy, or speech honoring the deceased, is known as a hesped.
Just like being asked to give the eulogy to honor a deceased person at the funeral in other religions, being asked to give the hesped is quite an honor. The eulogist speaks from the heart while giving testament to a life well lived, as they talk about their friend or family member.
It is perfectly acceptable to speak to others about their experiences with the person so that that hesped is from more than one person’s point of view. Anyone listening to them talking about the loved one should feel your words resonating with them.
As the hesped could be delivered in a funeral home, at a synagogue, or graveside, it should not be too long.
Eulogies or hespeds are forbidden on Friday afternoons and certain other days during the year near certain Jewish holidays. The eulogy can be given at another time during the year of mourning.
Can Jews Be Cremated?
Jewish people cannot be cremated. According to Jewish law, the body is a temple not to be desecrated, and cremation would be considered just that. In fact, based on traditional Jewish laws, those of the faith should also not get a tattoo for similar reasons. However, some Jews have relaxed that rule.
Reformed Jews have parted ways with many customs of the religion and may be cremated, as well as have a wake.
What Is The Dress Code at Jewish Funerals?
If you are attending a Jewish funeral, you should dress very modestly. Most guests will wear black, brown, navy, or gray clothing. Clothing should not be at all revealing and should be in good taste.
Men should wear dress pants, a dress shirt, a tie, and sometimes a jacket. Men are expected to cover their heads with a yarmulke, which will be provided for you if you do not own one.
Women should wear a skirt or dress, and the hemline should be at the knee or below. Sometimes women are asked to cover their heads with a shawl or lace, but this is not always required.
Refrain from wearing anything bright or flashy to a funeral.
What Are The Customs At The Gravesite?
If there was a service at the funeral home or synagogue, there is a funeral procession that accompanies the body to the burial site.
Generally speaking, the graveside service is relatively brief. There will likely be a few prayers, and perhaps the eulogy will be spoken here. The burial service is shorter if there was a service at the synagogue.
All mourns participate in the service by shoveling or throwing a few handfuls of dirt on the coffin.
Though you may see people casually dressed in many cemeteries, it is not acceptable practice in a Jewish cemetery. People should not eat or drink anything within the confines of a Jewish cemetery, and anyone entering the hallowed ground should be modestly and nicely dressed.
Reception After The Service
After the burial, friends and family are invited to the reception at the synagogue or the family home. Eggs are usually among the dishes prepared for the family as eggs symbolize the cycle of life.
Some families have a traditional seudat havra’ah or meal of condolence after the services. This light meal is for the immediate family only and contains eggs or other round foods. This meal signals the start of shiva, the Jewish mourning period lasting 7 days.
Shiva is done in the family home, ideally the home of the deceased. During the seven days of shiva, the immediate family members will sit on low chairs or stools and mourn deeply. People will speak quietly out of respect for the deceased and the grieving loved ones.
There are many customs surrounding shiva that a non-Jew may find perplexing. The first will occur as you get to the home. You will find a pitcher of water either outside or right inside the door. This is for ritual cleansing before entering the home. As a sign of respect, you should do this whether you are Jewish or not.
Mirrors are covered in the home where they are sitting shiva as your outward appearance is not to be regarded. Mourners eat small, easy-to-prepare meals.
People come and go throughout the seven days. Prayers are said three times each day, including the mourner’s kaddish.
Should Mourners Bring A Gift?
It is not customary to send flowers to a Jewish funeral service. Instead, you should send food to the family to help them as they prepare to sit shiva. The immediate family will sit shiva for seven days while close friends and extended family stop by to pay condolences.
Food gifts can be a fruit basket, other kosher foods, etc. The first meal the family eats after a burial should contain round foods to symbolize the circle of life, so consider that if you are sending food on that first day of shiva.
During shiva, the family receives guests. You will usually find that the door is unlocked. This is so guests can quietly enter without disrupting the mourning process.
If you feel like you want to do something tangible to assist your friends during their mourning period, you can give a gift of service. The grieving should not have to do anything during their period of mourning, so don’t hesitate to offer to do things they might need help with, such as watching young children or bringing a distant cousin to the airport.
How Did Covid Impact Jewish Funeral Traditions?
During the height of the pandemic, many cultures struggled with funeral practices and traditions. In Judaism in particular, which has such intimacy throughout the process, it was difficult to adjust. The first barrier was in actually scheduling funerals and burials. With so many deaths overwhelming funeral homes, Jewish families often could not get the funeral scheduled within the normal 24-hour window.