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Jewish funerals

A Jewish funeral is a time of intense mourning and public grieving. It is a special service and is not part of a larger service.

Yahrzeit candle

The burial should take place as quickly as possible after death. The officiants are a rabbi, who delivers a eulogy, and family members or friends who may also deliver a eulogy or tribute.

In Orthodox synagogues, only the Rabbi delivers the eulogy.

Jewish law traditionally prohibits cremation, but some progressive groups have overruled this.

Jewish burial is much easier to organise if the deceased is a fully paid-up member of a synagogue which will include burial fees and the right for the whole burial process to proceed immediately the death.

Approved/typical venues

Most Jewish people are buried in a Jewish cemetery or in a dedicated Jewish burial ground area of a public cemetery. The service can also take place in a chapel at the burial grounds.

Length of funeral and other 'rules'

Funerals can last from 15-60 minutes, depending on the time slots available at the cemetery.

The funeral is a simple affair. It is usually divided into three parts. At the chapel in the burial ground where psalms are recited and the eulogy read; at the graveside, where Kaddish, the prayer for the deceased, is said and the burial takes place; and then when mourners return to the chapel for a memorial prayer.

Flowers are never appropriate for orthodox, conservative and reconstructionist funerals.

Progressive movements such as reform and liberal sometimes allow flowers.

Contributions in memory of the deceased are customary.

Small contributions are often given to a charity or a cause favoured by the deceased; to a special fund established by the bereaved family; or to a Jewish organisation, particularly the Jewish National Fund which plants trees in Israel.

The body is placed in an inexpensive wooden coffin.

Burial without a coffin is possible in Israel but not in the UK. The coffin is never left open.

The service is led entirely by the rabbi, with no lay participation other than eulogies or memorials by relatives or friends. In the orthodox tradition, during the indoor service men and women will be on different sides of the building.

The service at the graveside will vary, depending as much on the family’s background as on its religious affiliation. At the simplest graveside service, the rabbi recites prayers and leads the family in the mourner’s Kaddish.

At a traditional service, once the mourners have arrived at the cemetery, there is a slow procession to the grave itself, with several pauses along the way.

After prayers and the Kaddish have been recited, each person present participates in filling in the grave by putting one spade of earth into it.

As the closest family members leave the gravesite, they traditionally pass between two rows of relatives and friends.

Mourners may also place a stone on the graves of other friends and members of the family. Mourners in the Jewish tradition include children, parents, siblings and spouse but not more distant relatives.

The traditional greeting to mourners is, "I wish you a long life," although an equally correct greeting is, "May the Almighty comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

In orthodox communities the family sits in mourning for seven days after the funeral. This is called the shiva period.

Family, friends and members of the community visit the shiva house during the seven days while the mourners sit on low chairs. 

It is customary to hold prayers each evening at the house where the mourners are sitting shiva.  This is a further opportunity for visitors to offer condolences.

Traditionally, during the shiva week, mourners abstain from work and preparation of food. The community brings food for the family for the duration of the shiva.

There are no ritual objects at the home of the bereaved, but some home traditions during the mourning period may include: burning a special memorial candle for seven days in memory of the deceased; immediate members of the family sitting on small chairs or boxes; and the wearing of slippers or just socks rather than shoes; and, for men, not shaving.

All these symbolise the mourners’ lack of interest in their comfort or how they appear to others.

In orthodox communities mourning can last for one month or one year during which time mourners do not listen to music, attend parties, celebrations, theatre, concerts etc.

The stages of a return to normal life of the mourners reflect the soul’s gradual progress to the afterlife.

Before the burial, the body of the deceased should not be left alone as this is thought to be disrespectful.

The body will be washed by a group of people called the Chevra Kadisha who also take it in turns to stay with the body until it is buried.

Male bodies are washed by men and female bodies by women. It is then placed in a simple unpolished box with no handles and padding. This is to symbolise that in death all are equal, despite personal wealth.

People are buried with no worldly goods, although men may be buried with their tallit/tallis (prayer shawl) and other religious items such as books and Torah scrolls which cannot be destroyed but are allowed to be buried.

A symbolic small tear (Kriah) may be made in the mourners’ clothes which represents a broken heart.

Things to discuss with your Rabbi

  • If the deceased owned a tallis/tallit (a prayer shawl), decide whether it should be buried or be kept as a family heirloom;
  • Decide who will conduct the funeral service;
  • Consult with the Rabbi regarding the eulogy and the participation of family members and friends;
  • Estimate the number of funeral attendees;
  • Consult with the funeral home and/or cemetery regarding the locations for the eulogy and burial;
  • Decide if a chapel and/or graveside service would best suit the family;
  • Some mourners may wish to practise reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer;
  • Agree in advance if mourners wish to rip a garment, usually a shirt or sweater, for kriah, so that they wear that article to the funeral;
  • If children are to attend the funeral, arrange to seat them with a babysitter or other responsible adult who will not mind leaving the service if the children are restless or upset.

Order of Service

The funeral service consists of psalms, speeches praising the deceased, prayers for the repose of the soul, the final recital of the Kaddish, and a hymn to praise God.

The dead body is placed on the ground and psalms are recited, especially psalm 91: "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty..."

The Kaddish is recited in Hebrew and again after the coffin has been interred.

Secular music, readings and other features

These are not usual in the orthodox tradition and are rarely permitted by progressive reformist communities.

Should we have a gathering afterwards?

After the funeral the mourners traditionally eat a simple meal prepared by friends or neighbours. In orthodox families the next of kin will tear their upper garments and remain indoors for seven days (the shivah) sitting on low stools.

On returning home a simple meal of hard boiled eggs is served. The egg, which has no opening, symbolises life and the encouragement to the mourners to open their mouths and put their grief into words.

Memorial services

The anniversary of the death is called a yahrzeit, upon which the bereaved attend a service at a synagogue or temple and light a yahrzeit candle that burns for 24 hours at the family home.

A 'stone-setting', or unveiling of the tombstone usually takes place on approximately the first anniversary of the death and involves a simple ceremony at the gravesite.

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