Jewish funeral customs
A Jewish funeral service generally incorporates many rituals, laws and customs that are based on the Torah. There are four different types of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform, and funeral traditions will vary between each of them.
Jewish beliefs about death
The Jewish faith believes that one should embrace life while accepting the inevitability of death. Unlike other faiths, Judaism does not define a specific afterlife. They believe in the immortality of the soul, the World to Come, and the resurrection of the dead, however, they do consider that leading an admirable life will help the soul after death.
These beliefs remain important in Orthodox and Conservative Jewish cultures, but some traditional customs have been modified under Reform Judaism.
Preparing the body
In line with Jewish law, the body is washed (Tahara) but not embalmed, before being dressed in a plain burial shroud. This is overseen by a group of Jewish men and women, known as the Chevra Kadisha, who remain with the body until burial to ensure it is protected and prepared according to Jewish funeral traditions. During this time, the men will often wear a prayer shawl (‘tallit’).
When it comes to cremation, Jewish funeral customs will vary across Judaism movements. For example, Orthodox and Conservative Jews prohibit it as they believe the body should be buried in the ground intact. In contrast, reform Jews accept cremation, and it is becoming a very popular practice. Additionally, organ donation is accepted across all Jewish practice as it can save lives.
What happens at a Jewish funeral?
A traditional Jewish funeral occurs within 24 hours of the time of death as it is a sign of respect to the deceased. However, many modern funeral services will happen later so friends and family members can all attend. There is no public viewing of the body.
Jewish funeral services can take place in a variety of places, including: a synagogue, funeral home or graveside. The body is buried in a simple casket that has not been ordained. It is usually made of wood or pine, and completely biodegradable, to aid the body’s natural decomposition.
A typical Jewish funeral will go as follows:
- Mourners congregate
- Keriah (tearing of a black ribbon)
- Enter the chapel
- Initial remarks and prayers
- Deceased’s family exit the chapel
- Casket removed from chapel
- Funeral procession to the cemetery
A typical Jewish graveside funeral will go as follows:
- The casket is brought to the grave
- Prayer recital and lowering of casket
- Graveside ceremony and prayers
- The Mourner’s Kaddish (a memorial prayer)
- Covering the casket with earth (dirt)
How long is a Jewish funeral?
On average, a Jewish funeral will last about 20 mins, but can go up to 60 mins.
What happens after a Jewish funeral?
Following a Jewish burial, the family members usually host a reception at the synagogue or the bereaved family’s home. A candle is lit on the first day of mourning and left to burn throughout the week.
The Jewish mourning period
The first seven days after the funeral is known as ‘shiva’ (meaning ‘seven’). During this period of mourning, the deceased’s family will stay at home and receive guests; together they will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and reflect upon their loss. Throughout shiva, personal grooming is not allowed, and couples must refrain from intimacy. This is to symbolize the disruption that death has brought to their lives and demonstrates grief through self-sacrifice. Mirrors are also covered to deter mourners from indulging in vanity.
Next, a second mourning period will occur (‘shloshin’), and this lasts 30 days after the funeral. During this time, it is common for the family to go back to their normal routines, however, they will still recite prayers and daily hymns. For some families, this period of mourning could last up to a year.
On the anniversary of the death, a candle is lit and left to burn for 24 hours. This is known as Yahrzeit.
What do you wear to a Jewish funeral?
It is funeral etiquette for guests to dress modestly and wear nothing too revealing i.e. short skirts, short sleeves, open-toed shoes. Male guests are expected to wear a jacket and tie with a yarmulke as a head covering. Women wear conservative clothes, a skirt or dress, but are not necessarily expected to wear a head covering.
Additionally, immediate family members will often wear a black ribbon. This is later cut to symbolise the loss of a loved one, and is worn throughout the mourning period (‘shiva’) to show their grief. The act of tearing the ribbon is known as ‘kriah’.
Do you wear black to a Jewish funeral?
It is common for people to wear black at a Jewish funeral, but dark colours are also considered appropriate, as long as the clothing itself is respectful.
What do you bring to a Jewish funeral?
Many people want to know if you send flowers to a Jewish funeral, but, in fact, flowers are not appropriate. Instead, donations are encouraged as a tribute to the deceased – often to a charity of the family’s choosing. Food, preferably kosher, is also welcomed.
Can you have a Jewish funeral on a Saturday?
Saturday is considered a holy day amongst Jews, and, as a result, burials never take place on the Sabbath. Additionally, funeral services don’t happen on Jewish holidays.
What to say at a Jewish funeral?
A Jewish burial will mainly consist of prayer, hymns and religious readings. As a mourner, you are not expected to say anything in particular at the service, however, as with any funeral, it’s considerate to offer your sympathy for the family’s loss.
What happens at a cremation service?
Cremations are fast becoming the norm in Britain with over 70% of families choosing this type of funeral.
When someone passes away in the UK, the process of repatriating someone to another country can be a complicated task for anyone to deal with.
Further Reading: Arranging a funeral
Read about how funerals are arranged and what services you can expect to get.