The Etiquette for Attending a Jewish Funeral

-There is no explicit afterlife in Judaism, but many Jews believe that after death, the soul of the deceased is judged:  Good souls are allowed entry into “The World to Come”; and bad souls must wait one year before being granted admittance into “The World to Come.”  Some Jews believe that with the coming of the Messiah, every person will be resurrected.

-Immediately upon the death of a Jew, those who will mourn the dead should recite the prayer, “Dayan HaEmet,” which acknowledges God’s power as “true judge.” According to Jewish law, a body must be interred as soon as practical from the moment of death, so a rabbi, funeral home, and/or the local burial society, called the “chevra kadisha,” should be contacted immediately after the death occurs. (A funeral may be delayed if there are legal issues surrounding the death, if the body must be transported from one country to another, if family members must travel from far distances in order to attend the funeral, or to avoid burial on a Saturday or another holy day).  Organ donation is viewed as “mitzvah” (a good deed); donating a body for medical research is also permissible. Routine autopsies are not permissible as they are seen as a desecration of the body. Where an autopsy is required for legal purposes, a rabbi familiar with the procedure may request permission to be present. Unless required by law, embalming and cosmetology are not typically employed at Jewish funerals.

-Per Jewish tradition, from the moment of death to the interment, the body should not be left unattended. A “shomer”(guardian), typically a family member, a close friend, or a member of the chevra kadisha, remains with the body. Though a shomer is allowed to simply sit with the body, it is tradition for the shomer to recite “tehillim” (psalms). One shomer may be relieved by another.

-In preparation for burial, in a process called “tahara,” the body is washed, purified, and dressed. The body is washed in a process called “rechitzah” by members of the chevra kadisha. Men wash the body of a man, and women wash the body of a woman. Once the body has been washed, it must be purified with water in an act called “tahara,” where the body is either fully submerged in a “mikvah” (ritural bath) or by pouring a continuous stream of water over the body. The body is then completely dried and dressed in a simple white shroud, called a “tachrichim,”  made of simple linen or muslin fabric. Men may also be buried in a “kippah,” the religious skull cap also known as a “yarmulke” and prayer shawl, called a “tallit” or “tallis.”

-Once the body has been fully prepared for burial, it is placed into a simple casket, typically made of pine. The casket, called an “aron,” should have no metal in its construction, thereby allowing for both casket and body to be fully biodegradable, in keeping with the Biblical principle of dust to dust, ashes to ashes. (Some Jewish caskets are even constructed with holes in the bottom so as to accelerate the decomposition process). Once the body is placed into the casket, it remains closed (except for official identification purposes).

-There is no viewing, visitation, or wake in Jewish tradition; but before the funeral service, the family of the deceased will gather to perform the rite known as “keriah,” in which a visible part of a mourner’s garment—such as a collar, pocket, or lapel is torn as a outward symbol of mourning. In modern tradition, rather than mourners tearing their garments, they instead attach a torn black ribbon to some visible part of their garment such as a lapel, a pocket, or a collar. (When mourning the death of a parent, the left side of the garment is torn or the torn black ribbon is affixed to the garment over the mourner’s heart. When mourning a family member who is not a parent, the mourning symbols are done to/placed onto the right side of the garment. The torn garment or torn ribbon is worn throughout the seven-day mourning period).

-Men and women mourners should wear dark-colored or black conservative clothing. Men should wear suits and ties, and women should wear dresses with hemlines that fall below the knee. In Orthodox Jewish sects, men and women are required to wear head-coverings:  plain scarves for women, and yarmulkes (a skullcap) for men. In certain sects, only men are required to wear head-coverings, which are usually available at the synagogue or ceremony where the service is being held.

-A Jewish funeral may take place in a synagogue, at a funeral home, or at the grave site.  When in a synagogue, pallbearers carry the coffin into the sanctuary for the service, then carry it out at the conclusion of the service. The Jewish funeral service consists of prayers (traditionally, the Memorial Prayer, called the “El Maleh Rachamim,” and the Mourner’s Blessing, called the “Mourner’s Kaddis,” among others), a eulogy, and the reading of psalms.  One or more eulogies may be delivered at a Jewish funeral, typically by family members and/or the rabbi. Jewish eulogies venerate the life of the deceased and express grief over the death.

-After the funeral service, all mourners should follow the hearse to the cemetery or place of interment. There, the rabbi will recite a few prayers, including, again, the Mourner’s Kiddish. Thereafter, the casket or urn will be interred. If the body is being buried in the ground, it is traditional for mourners to cast a handful of dirt into the grave.

-After the funeral, there is typically a reception at the family’s home. Friends or the synagogue community should prepare the consolation meal, at least one dish consisting of eggs, which in Jewish culture symbolize the cyclical nature of life.

-There are two mourning periods in Judaism: “shiva,” meaning “seven”; and “shloshim,” meaning “thirty.”   Shiva takes place over the seven days immediately following the funeral. On the first day of shiva, a shiva candle is lit and allowed to burn all week long. During shiva, the family gathers each day in a home to mourn and pray; family members do not work nor do they engage in the normal routine of their lives. Guests are received at the home of mourning.

Shloshim lasts until the thirtieth day after the funeral. Mourners resume their daily lives but recite the Mourner’s Kaddish daily. The end of Shloshim marks the end of formal mourning, except in the case of the death of a parent, where the formal mourning period lasts an entire year.

-There are two events for memorializing death in Judaism:  “yahrzeit” and “yizkor.” Yahrzeit is observed on the anniversary of the death (according to the Jewish calendar). Each year, on the night before the anniversary of the death, a yahrzeit candle is lit and allowed to burn for 24 hours, during which time the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited. Yizkor is a memorial prayer service, and mourners go to synagogue for communal mourning. Yizkor takes place on Yom Kipur, the Day of Atonement, as well as on the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, and on the last days of the holidays Passover and Shavout.



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