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Jewish Funerals

A guide to Jewish funeral burials, funeral traditions and customs

Last updated: 23 January 2024

Jewish funeral

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

Jewish people follow the lessons set out in the Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament. There are four different types of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform. Funeral practices vary between these sects - cremation is not allowed in Orthodox Judaism, but is accepted in Reform Judaism for example - but there are many common funeral rites throughout the Jewish faith.

What happens at a Jewish funeral service?

Mourners can expect a Jewish funeral service to start with a eulogy read by the rabbi, leading to various prayers, psalms and hymns. When the funeral service is finished, the mourners should follow the hearse to the place of burial.

The body will be buried in a simple wooden coffin or casket that has not been ordained. Once at the burial site, the rabbi will lead mourners in the recitation of a hymn. Any fraternal, military or civil rights requested by the family will take place here. After the coffin has been lowered into the ground, members of the bereaved family, and occasionally some other guests, will pour a handful of earth onto the coffin.

Typically, the mourners are lined up in two rows, with the line closest to the grave filled with family members so they can leave first.

When should a Jewish funeral take place?

According to Jewish funeral traditions around honouring the dead, known as k’vod hamet, the person who has died should be buried as soon as possible. However, Jewish burials may be delayed for practical reasons, such as allowing family to travel for the funeral, or for legal reasons, such as an inquest being held.

What are some Jewish burial customs?

When it comes to cremation, the different movements of Judaism differ in their laws. For Orthodox Jews, cremation is prohibited and the body should be buried intact in the ground. Conservative Judaism also does not recognise cremation, so a rabbi may perform the funeral but forego the usual burial rights. Reform Jews, however, allow cremation, and it is becoming a very popular practice.

Organ donation and the donation of the body for medical research is commonly accepted and viewed as a good deed in Judaism.

Due to the belief that a body should not be desecrated under any circumstances, autopsies are not common in Judaism. Autopsies can be conducted if one is legally requested, but a rabbi should be present during the procedure. Embalming is widely prohibited by Judaism.

What are Jewish funeral traditions and customs?

Immediately after death, the Dayan Ha’Emet prayer is recited and a shomer, or guardian, is assigned to tend to the body from the moment of death until burial. This person can be a family member, a member of the synagogue, a mourning friend or a member of the chevra kadisha – a Jewish sacred burial society. It is not uncommon to have more than one shomer on alternating shifts, despite the short time between death and burial.

The loved one is then washed and purified by members of the chevra kadisha who are of the same sex as the person who has passed. The chevra kadisha then dry the body and dress it in a plain white shroud of linen or muslin. If the loved one is male, he may also be buried in a religious skullcap, called a kippah or yarmulke, and a prayer shawl, called a tallit or tallis.

A Jewish coffin is usually quite simple and is known as an aron, which is made of pine and is metal-free so it is completely biodegradable. Once placed in the coffin, the body will not be seen.

One Jewish funeral custom that may be observed is of the mourners ripping off pieces of material from their own clothes. This ritual is a demonstration of their grief, with the visibly torn garment traditionally being worn for the week following the death.

Jewish funeral etiquette

Jewish funeral services often involve prayers that end with ‘Amen’ or responsive readings, where the congregation replies in unison at certain points. If you are not Jewish you are still welcome to respond to prayers and readings in this manner, but equally it is acceptable for you to remain silent.

One very important thing to note is that traditionally Jewish people do not send flowers to funerals. Instead guests are encouraged to give donations, or tzedakah, as a tribute to the deceased. Often the family will suggest an appropriate charity.

What to wear to a Jewish funeral

Mourners are generally expected to be formally and modestly dressed for a Jewish funeral. A suit and tie in dark subdued colours is appropriate for men, and a smart dress and jacket for women.

Depending on the branch of Judaism, men may be asked to cover their heads. If a number of non-Jewish mourners are expected, there may be a basket of kippahs (skullcaps) being handed out upon entering the synagogue for the Jewish funeral service.

What happens after a Jewish funeral?

Following the Jewish burial, a reception is usually hosted at the synagogue or at the bereaved family’s home, where a consolation meal is prepared by friends or members of the congregation.

Judaism also has religious days of remembrance. One is the holiday of atonement, known as Yom Kipur, and the other is on the Shemini Atzeret holiday at Passover. In both cases mourners will attend their synagogue in remembrance of their loved ones.

What is shiva?

Shiva, meaning seven, refers to the first period of mourning that takes place in the seven days that follow a Jewish funeral. On the first day, a candle is lit and left to burn throughout the week. During shiva, personal grooming is prohibited, and intimacy between couples is not allowed. This symbolises the disruption of death upon daily life.

The bereaved family will stay at home during this time to mourn and pray. Although the family will not work or participate in their everyday activities, guests are welcome to visit while the family is sitting shiva.

The second mourning period lasts for 30 days after the funeral. This is known as shloshim, meaning thirty. During this time, the family will go back to their normal routines but will still recite prayers and hymns daily. The duration of this mourning may extend for longer than 30 days, especially when mourning the death of a parent, which could last for up to a year.

Find out more information about other religious funerals.

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