Jewish Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs
Jewish funerals involve many time-honored traditions and rituals that both Reform Jews and traditional Jews must abide by. The rituals are meant to honor the deceased and are important cultural practices. Jewish funerals are traditionally led by a rabbi at the family’s synagogue or at a Jewish funeral home.
Jewish funeral customs before the service
There are a few important practices that take place before the Jewish funeral service itself occurs.
Washing the body
It is traditional practice for the body to be washed before a burial. The body of the deceased is washed thoroughly with warm water. If the deceased was a man, this is done by men; if the deceased was a woman, this is done by women. After the body is washed, it is then dressed in a simple white burial shroud.
Guarding the body (shmira)
Jewish funerals generally happen very quickly after someone passes away. Bodies are not left alone and are guarded around the clock until after a burial takes place in Jewish funeral traditions. A family member, a member of a sacred burial society (also known as Chevra Kaddisha), or someone who has been appointed by the funeral parlor, will guard and watch over the body until after burial.
Jewish funeral customs during the service
A traditional Jewish funeral is generally simple and very brief and is held only a day after the death has occured. The body is washed and placed in a simple coffin; no visitation takes place. Jewish funerals typically are conducted in a synagogue or a funeral home and are led by a rabbi.
Torn black ribbons
Before a traditional Jewish funeral starts, the family members will tear their own garments to symbolize the loss of a loved one. In a Reform Jewish funeral, the rabbi leading the service will tear black ribbons and will hand them to the family members. The family members will then pin these torn black ribbons on their clothing as a way of symbolizing their loss.
The rabbi leading the service will read Psalms, a eulogy, and a memorial prayer (also known as El Maleh Rahamim). After this, at least 10 Jewish adult attendees (typically males) are required to recite prayers.
After the readings are finished, the male family members will carry or wheel the casket out of the room, accompanied by a reading of Psalm 23. The other family members in mourning will then follow the casket out of the room while other attendees stay standing.
Jewish burial traditions
Once everyone is at the cemetery, more prayers take place. Jewish burial customs dictate then that the participating family members place dirt on top of the casket before it’s buried. Placing the dirt on the casket symbolizes their acceptance of the death. After the burial and before leaving the cemetery, traditional funerals will have attendees wash their hands.
What is shiva?
Shiva is the mourning period Jewish families customarily go through after a death. Shiva traditionally lasts seven days, but Reform Judaism will see families sitting Shiva for three days, and sometimes even one day. Traditionally, all mirrors in the home are covered during this Jewish mourning period, though this practice is not always followed by Reform Jews.
Mourner’s Kaddish prayer
The Mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer that is traditionally said for 30 days after a spouse, child, or sibling has been buried. If a parent has been buried, the Mourner’s Kaddish is said for 11 months. Additionally, it is recited on the anniversary of the death and at memorial services.
Common questions regarding Jewish funeral traditions
How long after death is a Jewish funeral?
Jewish funerals take place immediately, usually a single day after the death. For modern funerals, many take place later so that paperwork can be filed and family members can attend the services.
Are Jewish funerals open casket?
Traditional Jewish funerals are never open casket.
Is embalming allowed?
Embalming is not allowed in a traditional Jewish funeral, nor is it needed since Jewish funerals are entirely closed casket.
Is cremation allowed?
Cremation is usually prohibited as it can be seen as disrespectful of the body after death. There are no strict rules explicitly stating that cremation is not to be done, but it is not generally viewed as an acceptable method of disposition.
How long does a Jewish funeral last?
Jewish funerals are usually brief, lasting around 20-30 minutes.
Are there flowers at a Jewish funeral?
Flowers are not a part of Jewish funerals and are not considered acceptable gestures of sympathy. Jewish families do not place flowers on the casket or near the gravesite of a loved one. If you’re searching for ways to show your sympathy, sending food is an excellent alternative since families are instructed to not prepare food during shiva, but are welcome to receive food from others.
What is the dress code for a Jewish funeral?
The dress code for a Jewish funeral is usually simple, dark, and conservative attire. Women are expected to dress conservatively in darker colors, with close-toed shoes. Men should dress in a jacket and tie and are expected to wear a yarmulke -- which is provided by the funeral home or synagogue. If you're unsure if what you're wearing is appropriate, you can contact the family or a religious leader to see if your outfit is appropriate.
Jewish funerals have many components, so it’s a good idea to set up a memorial website to keep everyone in the loop with any important updates and information about the services. You can set up a memorial website quickly and start sending invitations to your friends and family about the services.