Jewish Funeral Traditions
The Mitzvah of Burial
Respecting the Dignity of the Deceased
Respectful treatment of the recently deceased and a prompt burial is one of the greatest mitzvahs, or commandments, of the Jewish faith. The deceased is carefully handled to preserve the integrity of the body, and burial must take place as soon as possible. “The in-between state is most difficult for the soul, as it has no body with which to relate to our world, and neither is it free of its tenuous bonds to our world to see things from the purely spiritual perspective,” explains Chabad.org. By returning the physical body to the earth as soon as possible, the soul is more easily able to return to the Source from which it is drawn.
The Torah forbids leaving a body unburied overnight; it’s thought to be a sign of great disrespect and a humiliation to the deceased. The Jewish Burial Society notes that in Jerusalem, same-day burials are strictly enforced, but in western countries some special allowances are made for burial delay including:
- The need to wait for the delivery of shrouds or a proper casket.
- Waiting for the arrival of the eulogizing rabbi.
- Allowing close relatives time to travel to town.
- Postponement until Sabbath has passed, as burials must not take place on Sabbath.
- Government regulations requiring a postmortem
examination, completion of documentation, etc.
The Preparation and Purification of the Body
The ceremonial cleansing and grooming of the body is called the Taharah. This ritual, in which water is poured over the body, is often carried out by a group of men and women in the community who act as a “Holy Society” called the Chevra Kadisha. These dedicated overseers cleanse and purify the body in preparation for the next phase of its existence and dress it in a white linen shroud or simple white garments to signify purity and holiness.
The Funeral Procession
The Levayah (“accompaniment”) of the body to its resting place is one more way in which Jewish mourners show respect to the deceased. The Hebrew word levayah also denotes “joining” and “bonding,” so the funeral procession is a deeply symbolic way to affirm that those who loved the deceased are still and forever joined together by “the fundamental Divine essence that all souls share.” Mourners also believe that by participating in the levayah and escorting the deceased to the gravesite, the soul is comforted as it undergoes the difficult transition from one life to another. This is usually performed by walking behind the coffin to accompany it to the hearse, or at the cemetery as the coffin is carried from the hearse to the gravesite.
A Return to Earth From Which it Came
Jewish law requires that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth. For this reason, cremation, autopsies and embalming are forbidden. The natural process of decomposition must occur so that the body can reunite with the soil from which it was formed. This also allows the soul to return to its Source more quickly. Open-casket funerals or any display of the deceased is forbidden and seen as a violation of the deceased’s dignity and privacy. According to Chabad.org, Jewish tradition dictates that, if possible, only fellow Jews should handle the body of a deceased Jew, carry the casket, and lower it into the earth. The eulogy (Hesped) focuses on the best traits of the deceased and contains examples of the good that he or she did in life. At the burial’s conclusion, the top of the coffin is often completely covered with earth thrown by the hands of Jews in attendance.
Simplicity and Democracy in Death
The casketless funeral was instituted by rabbis to reflect the fact that human beings are created equal in both life and death. The simple burial coupled with the wearing of a plain, white shroud also acts as a financial equalizer, saving the bereaved family from having to spend more on funeral costs than is affordable.
The spirit of these ancient traditions is kept alive today by many of the Jewish faith. Embalming, cremation and entombment in a mausoleum are prohibited. The body must be buried in the ground. Because a casket is mandatory in many western countries, Jews retain the intent of the original custom by ensuring the “aron” (Yiddish for “coffin”) is made completely from simple, decomposable wood. As the coffin decomposes over time, it allows the body to return to its source. Often there are holes in the bottom to facilitate rapid decomposition, and Jewish families may request perforated or partial grave liners instead of concrete so that the coffin makes contact with the earth.
The interior of the coffin is typically as plain and unadorned as the exterior, lacking plush lining. It’s traditional for the body to be buried with only a prayer shawl and sometimes soil from Israel, but without personal effects or mementos. The deceased is clothed in a white linen shroud and placed inside the casket face-up with open hands, symbolizing the idea that we come into the world with nothing and we leave with nothing; another reinforcement of the equality of all people. Jewish tradition prohibits open-casket funerals, viewing them as disrespectful to the deceased. You won’t find flowers adorning a Jewish casket since they denote a more joyous occasion.
The Sacred Jewish Tradition of Casketless Funerals
“For dust you are, and to dust you
– Genesis 3:19
Taking inspiration from the above scripture, the ancient Jewish burial tradition found the deceased lowered into the ground without a casket, shrouded in a simple cloth or burlap covering. The person’s life cycle was viewed as complete, and the body was lovingly surrendered and returned back to the earth from which it came. This coffinless burial custom is still practiced in Israel today, with the exception of state and military funerals.
Reclaiming Traditional Burial Rites
The growing popularity of natural, or green, burials is allowing Jewish people to reclaim the ancient tradition of casketless burial. Low-impact burials are desirable for many people who prefer an eco-friendly, less toxic alternative that reduces energy and resource consumption.
Bodies are lowered into the ground using a specially designed biodegradable board and are allowed direct contact with the earth, thanks to the absence of a coffin or grave liner. This is in full accordance with the Jewish principle of returning the body to nourish the earth and renew the cycle of life. According to the Green Burial Council (GBC), “the number of GBC-approved providers (funeral homes, cemeteries and product providers) in North America has grown from 1 in 2006 to more than 300 today, operating in 41 states and 6 provinces of Canada.” As the demand for environmentally friendly burials grows and more cemeteries set aside land for green, coffinless burials, people of the Jewish faith can hope to enjoy a return to the sacred traditional burial rites.
Traditional Jewish Funeral Elements.
Here you will find a list of common elements found in a traditional Jewish funeral.
In Judaism, a mourner is the spouse, parent, sibling or child of the deceased. Other family members and friends, although not technically considered mourners, can still observe any mourning rituals they want to participate in. From the time of death until the burial, a mourner is considered an “Onen.” Onens must put aside many of their daily responsibilities in order to focus on arranging the funeral.
Historically, shemira was a form of guard duty, to prevent the desecration of the body prior to burial. The shomrim sit and read aloud comforting psalms during the time that they are watching the body. This serves as a comfort for both the spirit of the departed who is in transition and the shomer or shomeret. According to Jewish tradition, immediately following a death, the deceased should not be left unattended. A Shomer, or “watchman,” stays with the deceased from the time of death until burial. It is common for the Shomer to be a member of the family. However, the Cleveland Jewish Funerals staff is available to serve as Shomereim.
Scheduling the Funeral
After contacting Cleveland Jewish Funerals, you should contact your local rabbi. The rabbi will set a date and time for the funeral service. Many congregations will allow services in their temples. If you are having a bigger funeral, consider having a graveside service at the cemetery. Traditional Jewish funerals are usually held 3 days after passing.
Jewish scholars say that it is disrespectful to look at a person who cannot look back. Therefore, a traditional Jewish funeral has a closed casket without a viewing.
Unless local laws require, Jewish burials do not use embalming. Your funeral director will be able to tell you if there are any laws that may require embalming.
The Chevra Kadisha
The Chevra Kadisha, or “sacred society,” is a group of pious men and women who ritually prepare the deceased for burial. They perform the Taharah, which is a purification bath, and then dress the person in Tachrichim, a traditional burial shroud made of white linen.
Jewish funerals use simple wooden caskets made without metal parts. Cleveland Jewish Funerals has a variety of traditional caskets that families may choose from.
Most traditional Jewish funerals do not have flowers, however, many Reform and Conservative Jews choose to have a few flowers present for the service. Most rabbis will not object to a small floral tribute on the casket but will object to having the entire casket surrounded by flowers.
Traditionally, Jewish funerals use burial. Mourners symbolically participate in the burial process by placing a few shovels of earth onto the casket. This ritual is known as “the Chesed Shel Emet,” the ultimate act of love and kindness. After the casket is buried, mourners recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and form a Shura. A Shura is a double line where funeral-goers face each other, forming a pathway through which the mourners pass to receive words of comfort.
Jewish funerals will usually last about twenty minutes and consist of the recitation of Psalms, Scripture readings and a eulogy.
Jewish mourners may choose to perform a K’riah, or “rending of the garment” before the service. This ancient custom is symbolic of the tear in the mourner’s heart. Traditionally the mourner’s clothing is torn. However, modern mourners often wear a black ribbon instead. If the person is mourning a parent, the ribbon is worn on the left side of the person. For other deceased persons, the ribbon is worn on the person’s right side. The ribbon is worn for seven days, except on Shabbat. When mourning the death of a parent, the ribbon is worn for thirty days.
One of the oldest and most meaningful Jewish funeral traditions is the Seudat Hara’ah. Upon returning to the house of mourning following the burial, the community provides the family’s first meal. This meal of condolence, called the Seudat Hara’ah, sets the tone of Shiva and makes sure the family is taken care of during their mourning period. Eggs or bagels are traditionally served to symbolize the continuity of life.
Shiva, meaning “seven,” is the seven-day mourning period following burial. During Shiva, mourners should remain at home, while their community comes to the home to take care of the mourners, attend services and say Kaddish. The atmosphere of the house should be one of dignity and remembrance.
Shloshim, which means “thirty” in Hebrew, is the thirty days following the burial. Shiva is the first seven days of Shloshim. After Shiva, Shloshim is the time when mourners return to their regular lives.
Yahrzeit is the annual anniversary of a loved one’s passing on the Hebrew calendar. The yahrzeit is observed by lighting a 24-hour candle and reciting the Kaddish. Most congregations will announce any Yahrzeits during Shabbat services.
In Judaism, graves must be marked with a simple headstone, or Matzava. Although it is not required to have an unveiling or dedication service, many families choose to have some sort of ceremony when the grave marker is put in place. Traditionally, the headstone can be put into place anytime after Shloshim, but most families choose a time close to the first yahrzeit.
Visiting the Grave
Judaism teaches that mourners should not show excessive grief while visiting their loved one’s grave, should not visit the grave until after Shiva, and should not visit other graves in the same cemetery.
What is opening and closing and why is it so expensive?
Opening and closing fees can include up to and beyond 50 separate services provided by the cemetery. Typically, the opening and closing fee include administration and permanent record keeping (determining ownership, obtaining permission and the completion of other documentation which may be required, entering the interment particulars in the interment register, maintaining all legal files); opening and closing the grave (locating the grave and laying out the boundaries, excavating and filling the interment space); installation and removal of the lowering device; placement and removal of artificial grass dressing and coco-matting at the grave site, leveling, tamping, re-grading and sodding the grave site and leveling and re-sodding the grave if the earth settles.
Can we dig our own grave to avoid the charge for opening and closing?
The actual opening and closing of the grave is just one component of the opening and closing fee. Due to safety issues which arise around the use of machinery on cemetery property and the protection of other gravesites, the actual opening and closing of the grave is conducted by cemetery grounds personnel only.
Why is having a place to visit so important?
To remember and to be remembered are natural human needs. A permanent memorial in a cemetery provides a focal point for remembrance and memorializing the deceased. Throughout human history, memorialization of the dead has been a key component of almost every culture. Psychologists say that remembrance practices, from the funeral or memorial service to permanent memorialization, serve an important emotional function for survivors by helping them bring closure and allowing the healing process to begin. Providing a permanent resting place for the deceased is a dignified treatment for a loved one’s mortal remains, which fulfills the natural human desire for memorialization.
What happens when a cemetery runs out of land?
When a cemetery runs out of land, it will continue to operate and serve the community. Most cemeteries have crematoriums, and some historic cemeteries even offer guided tours. In a hundred years will this cemetery still be there? We think of cemetery lands as being in perpetuity. There are cemeteries throughout the world that have been in existence for hundreds of years.
How soon after or how long after a death must an individual be buried?
Traditionally, a Jewish burial takes place within 24 hours because the Torah states “you shall bury him the same day”.
Does a body have to be embalmed before it is buried?
No. Jewish custom does not invlolve embalming.
What are burial vaults and grave liners?
These are the outside containers into which the casket is placed. Burial vaults are designed to protect the casket and may be made of a variety or combination of materials including concrete, (stainless steel, galvanized steel, copper, bronze), plastic or fiberglass. A grave liner is a lightweight version of a vault which simply keeps the grave surface from sinking in.
Must I purchase a burial vault?
Most large, active cemeteries have regulations that require the use of a basic grave liner for maintenance and safety purposes. Either a grave liner or a burial vault will satisfy these requirements. Some smaller rural or churchyard
cemeteries do not require use of a container to surround the casket in the grave.