Jewish funeral practices stem from a long religious history, including ceremonies and customs that families often include in the burial and mourning practices.
Cultural influences play a notable role in the family’s decision for funeral services. We can talk about general religious practices and ceremonies, but it’s important to note that there are many branches in each religion.
As such, cultural traditions vary depending on the preferences and practices of each religion and branch. For example, the traditions of Sephardic Jews (of Spanish and Middle Eastern descent) will differ from the practices held by Ashkenazic Jews (of Eastern European descent).
What is a Jewish Funeral?
The purpose of a Jewish funeral is similar to other religious practices in helping families mourn the loss of a loved one. But the specific customs and ceremonies differ significantly from Christian funerals and different cultures and religions.
One notable example is that many Christian customs include a viewing or visitation before the funeral. In Jewish tradition, there is no viewing or open-casket portion of the event. Family and friends are not allowed to see the person before burial.
Jewish Burial Customs
A few notable Jewish burial traditions affect the planning and coordination when laying a loved one to rest. Here are a few common Jewish burial customs and Jewish death rituals:
- Timing of Burial: Jewish burial timing encourages families to complete the burial as soon as possible. Ideally, the placement of the casket in the ground should happen within 24 hours after death. The burial can take place on any day other than holidays and the Sabbath. Modern practices allow a bit more flexibility, with many families scheduling burial at the earliest convenience. It’s important to note that cremation is generally not a part of the Jewish tradition, and that embalming is also avoided.
- Casket Selection: Traditional Jewish funerals use only natural materials for the casket. Customarily, they make the casket out of wood, including wood nails to secure the box. The box design is simple and free of metal attachments or adornments. Also, the casket could feature a Star of David engraving on the top.
- Clothing: They place careful attention on the clothing for your loved one. First, they ritually wash the person before clothing them for burial. Traditionally, they dress the person in clothing made of white linen. Every person wears the same style of clothing to symbolize equity among everyone. Dressing matches the items worn by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, including linen pants, a shirt, and a cap.
- Arrival at Cemetery: The Rabbi oversees the cemetery services, which start when the casket and the family arrive together. The group of funeral attendees follows the family and casket to the burial site in a walking procession.
- Burial Participation: Jewish death rituals invite attendees to participate in the burial. During a Jewish burial, family and friends watch as the casket is lowered into the ground. Then, everyone places handfuls (or shovelfuls) of dirt on top of the casket, starting with the immediate family members first.
- Grave Dedication: In a traditional Jewish funeral, the Rabbi offers a dedicatory prayer after attendees participate by placing dirt on the casket. The Rabbi might also share a eulogy or religious message at this time.
- Leaving the Burial Site: The graveside service ends with attendees forming two lines, facing each other. The family walks through the pathway, listening to the comforting words offered by friends and distant relatives in the lines.
Jewish Mourning Period
Following Jewish funeral tradition, the family goes through several stages of mourning:
- Stage 1 – Aninut: The first stage of Jewish mourning starts immediately when a family member passes away and lasts until burial. This mourning stage lasts between 24 – 72 hours, depending on the timing of the burial. Traditionally, aninut is less than 24 hours.
- Stage 2 – Shiva: When the person is buried, the family moves into the second stage of mourning, known as shiva. This period starts at the time of burial and lasts for seven days.
- Stage 3 – Seloshim: When shiva finishes, then the family moves into the seloshim stage of mourning, which lasts for 30 days.
- Stage 4 – Yud-be Chosesh: Parents continue their mourning for a full year, based on the Hebrew calendar. This period of mourning ends on the anniversary date of the person’s passing, known as Yahrzeit.
The stages of mourning vary depending on the relationship shared with the loved one. For example, parents who lose a child will stay in mourning longer than an extended family member mourning the same loss.
Jewish Funeral Traditions
People of all backgrounds and religions often find it comforting to participate in traditional activities and ceremonies. These are some of the most common Jewish funeral customs that happen before, during, and after the funeral services:
- Pre-Funeral Activities: Traditionally, the family meets with their Rabbi before the funeral services. For example, the Rabbi might request for the family to arrive 45 minutes before the funeral to discuss information about the loved one. These personal details support the Rabbi in delivering a quality eulogy during the service.
- Event Location: If the person was an active Synagogue member, it’s common for the funeral services to happen in the Jewish temple. Alternatively, families can choose to hold a Jewish funeral service in a funeral home if desired. The third choice is to hold these services in the cemetery at the graveside.
- Attendance Age: Jewish funeral traditions include all family members in the activities, which means that children are an essential part of the service. The belief is that death is part of the circle of life, so the funeral is an opportunity to provide knowledge and education for children.
Jewish Funeral Etiquette
Attendees should maintain the highest levels of respect for traditions and ceremonies. Each family determines the specific level of Jewish funeral etiquette they’d like to maintain at the event. Since Jewish funeral etiquette varies, it’s important to understand the family's needs before attending the event.
- Head Covering: Men wear a skull cap, and women wear a head covering as a symbol of respect.
- Dark Colors: It’s appropriate to wear black or dark colors and respectful Jewish funeral attire, such as dresses, suits, or business clothing.
- Flowers: Unlike Christian traditions, sending flowers for Jewish condolences isn’t an appropriate gesture of sympathy. Jewish funeral flowers are not part of funeral practice in the Jewish community, so you should not send flowers to the family.
Jewish Funeral Etiquette for Non-Jews
Attending a Jewish funeral is a unique and beautiful experience. If you aren’t familiar with the customs and traditions, then it can be helpful to understand the practices, so you know what to expect:
- What to Wear to a Jewish Funeral: Modest clothing is preferable at a Jewish funeral. It’s common for attendees to wear black or dark colors. If the family is planning a traditional k’riyah, then wear clothing that someone can cut. Or, in modern Jewish funeral practices, many families pass out ribbons to cut instead of clothing.
- Family Requests: Since there is a range of traditions and ceremonies at a Jewish funeral, pay attention to the family’s dress and etiquette requests. Orthodox Jewish funeral traditions vary significantly from modern practices that some families choose.
- How Long is a Jewish Funeral? Most Jewish funerals last only 20 – 30 minutes, with a eulogy or readings during the service. Then, the burial ceremonies can last another 15 – 30 minutes, depending on the number of people in attendance.
While this article outlines many traditional and Orthodox Jewish funeral traditions, many families choose modern practices instead. Depending upon their beliefs and preferences, each family can choose to incorporate their desired Jewish funeral practices with alternative or blended services to create a personalized tribute in keeping with their faith and culture.