Jewish Funeral Customs
Jewish funeral service rituals and practices have traditionally followed a strong set of customs and beliefs which are based on the Torah. Although these beliefs remain important in the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish cultures, some of the traditional customs have been modified under Reform Judaism. The Jewish people hold the philosophy that one should embrace life while accepting the inevitability of death. The emphasis of Judaism concerns how one’s life should be lived and it does not specifically define an afterlife. However, it is implied that leading a praiseworthy life will prepare one for what comes after life.
Jewish burials are to take place as soon as possible. Exceptions are made when the family cannot be present in a short time and for other reasons of practicality. Jewish funerals emphasize simplicity to avoid embarrassment for the poor. It is traditional Jewish practice to perform a ritual washing of the body (“Tahara”) and then to dress it in a plain burial shroud. Watchers (“Chevra Kadisha”) remain with the body around-the-clock until the funeral.
According to traditional practices, the funeral is usually held in a synagogue or funeral home the day after the death. There is no visitation by friends in the presence of the body before the funeral. The body is placed in a simple wood coffin so as not to disturb its natural decomposition. An open casket or cremation is not generally accepted in the Jewish tradition. Male guests are expected to wear a jacket and tie with a yarmulke as a head covering, which is available at the funeral home or synagogue. Women wear conservative apparel, a skirt or dress of somber colors, but they are not expected to wear a head covering. They should dress modestly – nothing revealing – no short skirts, short sleeves or open-toed shoes.
The service is conducted by the rabbi and begins with the cutting of a black ribbon to symbolize the individual breaking away from loved ones. If you arrive late, it’s wise to wait for an opportune moment to enter, so as not to disturb the service. Cameras or tape recorders are discouraged. The rabbi leads the service and reads the eulogy. A “minyan” (at least 10 Jewish adults, traditionally males) is required to recite prayers. At the cemetery, more prayers are read and the family members usually participate in placing dirt on the coffin before it is buried. This symbolizes their acceptance of the finality of death. Jewish funerals are often held entirely at grave side. Flowers are not appropriate for most Jewish funerals. Rather, making a donation to a charity or Jewish organization is appreciated. Food, preferably kosher, is welcome.
For Jews, the initial mourning period lasts seven days and is called Shiva (Hebrew for seven). During this time, it is appropriate to visit the home of the bereaved. There, the family may practice traditions that may include: covering mirrors; burning memorial candles; or wearing the black ribbon that was cut. Men do not shave, women do not wear makeup, and couples refrain from intimacy. This break from daily routine symbolizes the disruption that death has brought to their lives and demonstrates grief through self-sacrifice. Twice a day, the bereaved pray for their loved one. They usually return to work within a week but the mourning period may last as long as a year. On the first anniversary of the death, the bereaved attend a service and unveil the tombstone at grave side. Candles are lit on the yearly anniversary of a death, known as Yahrzeit (YORtzait).