Death Rituals According to Jewish Law
The body of the deceased is washed thoroughly. The deceased is buried in a simple pine coffin. The deceased is buried wearing a simple white shroud (tachrichim). The body is guarded or watched from the moment of death until after burial. Just as there is a way to live as a Jew, there is also a “way to die and be buried as a Jew,” writes Blu Greenberg in her book, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (Fireside, 1983). This classic guide to Jewish living outlines traditional death rituals and practical issues, although many of these practices have been adapted somewhat by Reform Jews. The first thing to do after a death in the family, if you belong to a synagogue and the family member lives near you, is to contact your rabbi or another synagogue leader. Usually, the synagogue will take over many of the arrangements. However, when your family member lives far away and is not a member of a congregation, or when you are not a member, funeral homes can often suggest rabbis who will conduct a funeral. Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible, following a principle of honoring the dead (k’vod hamet). Only if immediate relatives cannot arrive in time from abroad, or there is not enough time for burial before Shabbat or a holiday, are burials postponed for a day. Anything less is considered a “humiliation of the dead,” Greenberg explains.
If you don’t already have funeral plots purchased, you or a representative will need to contact a cemetery to purchase a plot. You will also need to contact a funeral parlor to transfer the body and schedule the time of the funeral. Jewish law mandates a simple pine box, so although you may need to choose a plot, you don’t need to concern yourself with elaborate decisions about coffins. Or with cremation or embalming, which are forbidden by Jewish law (halacha), Greenberg writes. However, many Reform rabbis will officiate at funerals involving cremation and embalming, according to Reform Rabbi Steven Chester.
Most well organized communities offer the services a sacred burial society (Chevra Kaddisha), which will prepare the body for burial. Men prepare men and women prepare women. They wash the body with warm water from head to foot and, although they may turn the body as necessary to clean it entirely, including all orifices, they never place it face down. The body is dressed in white burial shrouds (tachrichim), which are purposely kept simple to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Men are buried with their prayer shawls (tallitot), which are rendered ineffective by cutting off one of the fringes. If, however, a person suffered an injury and blood soaked into his or her clothing, ritual washing is not completed. “…the blood of a person is considered as holy as his life and deserves proper burial,” Greenberg writes. From the moment of death, the body is not left alone until after burial. This practice, called guarding/watching (shmira), is also based on the principle of honoring the dead. A family member, a Chevra Kaddisha member, or someone arranged by the funeral parlor passes the time by reciting psalms (Tehillim) as this person watches over the deceased.
Traditional Jewish funerals are very simple and usually relatively brief. Before they begin, the immediate relatives of the deceased – siblings, parents, children, spouse – tear their garments to symbolize their loss.
Sometimes the rabbi will tear their garments for them and recite a blessing, “Baruch atah Hashem Elokeinu melech haolam, dayan ha’emet,” Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, the true Judge. A shorter version of the same blessing is recited by all who witness or hear about a death: “Baruch dayan emet,” Blessed is the one true Judge.
Reform Jews often do not follow these practices. Instead, the rabbi tears black ribbons and hands family members a torn black ribbon to pin on their clothes to symbolize their loss. During the ceremony that follows, Psalms are recited, then a eulogy and the memorial prayer (El Maleh Rachamim). The casket is then carried or wheeled out of the room (accompanied by the 23rd Psalm in many Reform funerals) by the male members of a Chevra Kaddisha (or male family members in Reform funerals), regardless of the gender of the deceased, and the mourners follow behind the casket.
Those attending remain standing until the family mourners have left the room. In Reform funerals, people then often express their condolences to the family members of the deceased before the actual burial. In traditional funerals, people attending the funeral but not the burial may escort the dead, fulfilling the mitzvah of leveyat hamet by walking behind the hearse for a short distance. A Jew who is a Cohen, a descendant of the priestly class, will only attend the funeral and burial of his immediate family as he is otherwise forbidden to come near a corpse. You may see a close friend or relative who is a Cohen remain outside the funeral parlor or cemetery because of this law. At the cemetery, another custom in traditional funerals is to stop seven times – as the coffin is carried to the grave – to recite Psalm 91. Once the coffin is lowered into the grave, family and close friends cover the coffin with a few handfuls of dirt. The rabbi then repeats Psalm 91 and El Maleh Rachamim.
Following the burial, non-family members form two lines and, as the mourners pass by them, they recite the traditional condolence: “Hamakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sh’ar availai tziyon ee yerushalayim.” May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. In traditional funerals, before leaving the cemetery mourners wash their hands as a symbolic cleansing.
After the burial, it is customary for the family to sit Shiva (in mourning). This was traditionally done for seven days, although many Reform and other Jews now sit Shiva for three days, and some for one day. Traditional Jews cover all mirrors during this time and sit on Shiva benches, however less observant Jews do not. It is customary for friends and family of the deceased as well as friends of the deceased’s relatives to pay a Shiva call to the designated location where people are sitting Shiva, usually at the home of a close family member. Jews do not send flowers, but when paying a Shiva call it is appropriate to bring food, because the person mourning is not supposed to worry about such mundane matters. Being surrounded by family and close friends often helps mourners cope with the immediate loss. Often, family members find great solace from sharing memories of the deceased during the Shiva period.
Indeed, many mourners report that sitting Shiva was a time of family closeness, when small disagreements were overlooked in the face of the eternal.
Jewish Death Rituals According to Jewish Law
- The body of the deceased is washed thoroughly.
- The deceased is buried in a simple pine coffin.
- The deceased is buried wearing a simple white shroud (tachrichim).
- The body is guarded or watched from the moment of death until after burial.
- Just before a funeral begins, the immediate relatives of the deceased tear their garments or the rabbi does this to them or hands them torn black ribbons to pin on their clothes to symbolize their loss.
- Upon hearing about a death, a Jew recites the words, “Baruch dayan emet,” Blessed be the one true Judge
How soon after death is a Body Buried
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. Do Jews have to be buried in 3 days?
Burial should take place as soon after death as possible; if not the same (or next) day, as described variously in the Hebrew Bible, then at most a few days later and only to allow close relatives to gather to pay their respects. In America, many Jewish communities limit the delay to three days at most.
The casket is usually closed and the funeral service conducted by a rabbi is usually short, reflective and solemn. A eulogy is delivered, and family members and close friends often read psalms, prayers, and share stories in their own way. Jewish funeral services can take place at the synagogue, funeral home or graveside at the cemetery.
At the graveside of a Jewish funeral, it is a common tradition, along with a sign of respect and love to the deceased, for the mourners and friends to participate in the actual burial. Today, many people place a few shovels of soil onto the casket to symbolically follow this tradition. To bury a loved one is an incredibly difficult and emotionally painful act, but the traditions and customs of participating in the burial are considered psychologically beneficial. The act of shoveling soil onto the casket helps provide closure and give a physical connection of saying goodbye to their loved one for a final time. It also helps with the realization that the death occurred and allows for the grieving process to truly begin.
What is the procedure when a Jewish person dies?
According to classic Jewish practice, those mourning the death of a parent continue reciting Mourner’s Kaddish for eleven months (including the first month). Some mourners mark the end of shloshim with a special service or ceremony at which the mourner or family members speak about the deceased. Depending on the level of observance of the deceased individual, the mourning family, and/or the person presiding over the funeral (e.g., Rabbi, Cantor, family member or funeral director), along with local customs, varying levels of traditions may be followed during a funeral service. However, there are certain rituals that will be conducted at each Jewish funeral.
Attending a Jewish Funeral: Family & Mourners
The Mourners Congregate: It is common for the mourners and the immediate family gather in a private/separate room before the funeral service. In general, the mourners do not engage with or greet the comforters and supporters prior to the burial. The guests are ushered to a chapel where the funeral service will take place awaiting the mourning family’s entrance.
Keriah (Tearing of a Black Ribbon): Keriah is the tearing of a garment or ribbon (black) worn by a mourner during the funeral and shiva mourning period which traditionally is seven (7) days. Generally, prior to the funeral service the rabbi or individual presiding over the funeral places a ribbon on the outside of each mourner. In some instances the placement and tearing of the ribbon may be done publicly, but most often this is performed before the family enters the service.
After placing the ribbon, it is torn, while a prayers is said by the mourner:
Baruch atah Adonai, Dayan Ha-Emet.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Truthful Judge.
The other family members and loved ones may recite a passage from the book of Job:
Adonai natan, Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai m’vorach.
God has given, God has taken away, blessed be the name of God.
Jewish Funeral Service: Family, Friends, & Community
Entering the Chapel: After all of the extended family, friends, comforters and supporters are in their seats there is a mourners procession where the family enters and is seated. The first row (and second if needed) of seating is often reserved for the mourners and family.
Initial Remarks and Prayers: In general, a Jewish funeral service opens with the reading or singing of poems and Psalms. The funeral service is a compilation of select Psalms deemed appropriate to the life of the deceased. Most commonly, Psalm 23 is recited. The silent prayer usually is next with the eulogy to follow.
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He has me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside the still waters.
He revives my soul;
He guides me on paths of righteousness for His glory.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no harm,
For you are with me.
Your rod and your staff do comfort me.
You set a table in sight of my enemies;
You anoint my head with rich oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall abide in the house of the Lord for ever.
The Eulogy: A eulogy is most often delivered by the individual presiding over the memorial service. The messages and history shared is compiled by meeting with the family and/or a direct relationship held with the deceased. In many instances family members and others also prepare and share memories about their loved ones telling personal stories. The words of a eulogy are intended to honor and commemorate loved ones, begin to comfort mourners and establish a legacy for future generations. Eulogy in Hebrew is Hespeid.
Mourning Family Exiting the Chapel: Following the eulogy and concluding prayers, generally the El Malei Rachamim is recited and then the family leaves the chapel, returning to the private room to await the procession to the cemetery.
Casket Removed from Chapel: The funeral director generally makes a series of announcements after the family leaves the chapel relating to the burial, family gathering and shiva. Most notably, the individuals selected to serve as pall bearers (and honorary pall bearers) are named. These individuals assist with escorting the casket to the graveside. In general, the pall bearers may also help to move the casket from the chapel to the hearse. After the announcements the family, friends, and other comforters remain in the chapel until the casket leaves. During this time it is common for Psalms to be recited.
Funeral Procession to the Cemetery: Within Judaism it is a good deed (mitzvah) to attend a funeral service and burial at the cemetery. At the conclusion of the funeral service the funeral director typically makes an announcement regarding the location of the burial and shiva to follow. If attending the burial it is customary to drive in a procession to the cemetery.
Jewish Funeral Service: Graveside
A Jewish cemetery service is generally short in duration. Similar to the funeral service the customs differ between practices, level of observance, geography, synagogue, and/or individuals overseeing the service. The following are customs that may be found:
Bringing the casket to the grave: It is tradition to have the pall bearers help move the casket from the hearse and escort it to the grave. The mourners’, family and those in attendance at the cemetery are usually at the area set up for the burial service. Depending on level of observance and practices, the pall bearers may pause seven (7) times between the hearse and the grave.
Reciting prayers and lowering the casket: The duration of time spent at the cemetery is generally brief. After the casket arrives to the grave it is set on a device that holds it in place for either prayers to be recited or immediate lowering. The order of whether prayers are recited or the casket is lowered may vary depending on a number of factors including, local traditions, family preferences, and/or the rabbi, cantor or individual presiding over the ceremony’s direction.
Graveside ceremony and prayers: At the cemetery service there are often poems and prayers read that relate to love, family and life.
The Mourners Kaddish: Traditionally, the mourners kaddish is a prayer that praises God. Although called the mourners kaddish, the emphasis is on life and death is not referenced in the prayer itself. In general this prayer is recited at the graveside for the first time by mourners. In addition, depending on level of observance, the mourners kaddish is recited each day for eleven months after the burial, and each year on the anniversary of the passing of the deceased which is called the yahrzeit.
Covering the casket with Earth (dirt): The Jewish burial ceremony has many customs one of which includes the placement of earth on top of the casket after it is lowered into the grave. Upon the conclusion of the burial service the mourners and attendees at the cemetery help to place earth (dirt) into the grave on top of and around the casket either with the front of back side of a shovel. The amount of earth placed on the casket by individuals may vary. Lastly, it is common for the Rabbi or officiant to place soil, rock or dirt from Israel on the casket.
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