Jewish funeral traditions
Between someone's passing and their burial, the body is not supposed to be left alone.
The body is not embalmed, but is prepared according to a specific ritual and wrapped in a plain shroud.
Funerals happen as quickly as possible, but not on the Sabbath or festivals.
The casket is usually quite simple and unadorned, and remains closed.
Immediate family members will tear their clothes as a symbol of their pain.
Like most religious traditions, Judaism has specific beliefs about death and customary ways to help its adherents cope with the passing of a loved one. It is considered one of the world’s oldest religions, and there have been many progressions and modernizations of thought over the centuries, including varying ideas about the afterlife.
Followers of Judaism believe that the body and the soul are in partnership. The body is a vessel for the soul to do sacred work in the world, and death is part of the divine plan. The soul goes on to an afterlife, but there are many differing views about the nature of that afterlife. What is certain is that the soul passes on.
The sanctity of life is a central element of Jewish belief. Jewish tradition says that anyone who saves a single human life, it is as if they saved the entire world. While it’s thus forbidden to quicken death (for example, euthanasia), it is permitted in certain circumstances to end artificially prolonging life—especially if death is imminent and the person is suffering.
Jewish philosophy teaches its followers not to fear death or place it at a distance, because it is not an extinction but a passage to the next stage of being. Mourning is considered an act of expressing respect for the dead and providing comfort to the living.
Before and during the death of a loved one
Jewish practices around death begin before the person has departed this life. Typically, a rabbi will have provided guidance to a community member around the person’s concerns and desires. For example, while there is no formal “last rites”-like service in Judaism, a person might want prayers recited as they transition to the afterlife.
It is customary for a person to not be left alone during death, so usually family, close friends, and religious community members are by the side of someone as they pass away. This is meant to provide comfort and allow for a chance to say goodbye. This practice also allows for immediacy in the initial steps of mourning.
Immediately after death
After a person passes away, a rabbi and any family should be informed as soon as possible. The person’s eyes and mouth should be closed if they remain open, and the body covered with a sheet. Customarily a lit candle is placed by their head, and some have a tradition to open a window to allow the soul to pass out of the room.
It’s customary for mourners to be the ones to initiate conversations, if they so choose.
The body is not left alone until after burial, typically accompanied by shomerim (meaning “guards” or “keepers”). Because respect for the dead is a major tenet in Judaism, no one should eat, drink, or fulfill Jewish commandments in the presence of the body. It’s also important to wash your hands after being in the same room.
Jewish tradition calls for the body to be laid out with its feet pointed out the door, then thoroughly washed and covered in a plain white shroud, symbolizing purity and simplicity. This is usually done by a community organization called the chevra kaddisha, considered one of the most meritorious roles in Judaism because its members perform a service for someone who cannot thank or repay them.
Simplicity, overall, is key to the ceremonies that follow; the coffin should be unadorned and made of plain wood. Autopsies, embalming, and organ removal are not generally allowed, although some Jewish authorities permit or even encourage organ donation if it will save lives. Cremation is not permitted in Jewish tradition.
It’s customary to bury the body as soon as possible, but funerals do not take place on holidays or the Sabbath. Graves should be marked by a tombstone so that the dead are not forgotten, although some communities keep the tombstone veiled for a 12-month period after burial, after which they have an unveiling ceremony at which the person is memorialized.
During the funeral
Custom factors large in the days, weeks, and even months after a death in the Jewish community. Respect and remembrance of the dead is the main theme, but it also provides a path forward for the living.
There are several customary portions of a Jewish funeral. The casket remains closed, and immediate relatives may express their pain by ritually tearing one of their garments, a practice known as keriya. Some have the custom to tear their clothing at the moment they learn of the person’s death instead.
There will be a traditional eulogy, and then pallbearers are in charge of moving the casket from the funeral home to the final resting site. The burial itself is considered to be the final stage of returning the body to the earth, its original source. In accordance with tradition, the whole grave should be filled by hand by funeral attendees, though this is often amended in modern ceremonies so that the casket only needs to be completely covered with earth by hand.
Typically, memorial prayers will be recited, and then the mourning process begins. The attendees at the burial will form two parallel lines, and members of the immediate family pass through the embracing community as they speak traditional words of comfort.
What to expect during shiva
After the funeral, a seven-day mourning period begins for the immediate family, called shiva. Because mourners are not permitted to leave the house during this time, friends, family, and fellow worshippers often visit the home to provide comfort and offer condolences.
If you’re attending a mourner’s home during shiva, you might expect candles to be lit, mirrors to be covered, and the members of the family to be wearing no shoes and sitting on low stools. Much like other remembrance receptions, memories of the person who has passed will be shared and food will be abundant. Mourners “sitting shiva” are not expected to give their attention to mundane daily activities like cooking or grooming, and so people often bring food for the family and other visitors.
It’s customary that the mourners be the ones to initiate conversations, if they so choose. If they prefer to sit in silence, that should also be respected.
Once shiva ends, the close family will continue to honor their loved one by not attending parties or celebrations for at least 30 days (shloshim). A prayer (kaddish) will be offered daily for an entire year, and then periodically at moments of remembrance for the rest of the mourner’s life.
If you’re Jewish or are experiencing the death of someone close to you who was Jewish, you can expect to honor the dead through these and other customs. Jewish tradition is designed to help you process this difficult time in your life, and the community is there to support you.
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