According to Jewish faith, humans are created in the image of God. This understanding is the basis for all Jewish funeral traditions, though significant differences exist between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, as well as between communities and families.
It is important to know that in Judaism, death is not treated or considered a tragedy but rather as part of the cycle of life, regardless of the time or cause of death. Jewish laws, traditions, and customs require that a Jewish funeral take place as soon as possible, ideally within one day following the date of death. The exception being that Jewish funerals cannot take place on Shabbat or on most Jewish holidays.
Jewish funerals services are traditionally solemn and reflective. They are followed by a gathering at the mourner’s home, which marks the beginning of Shiva.
Traditions and Emotional Tone
A Jewish funeral is meant to be a quiet and somber occasion, a period of transition and self-reflection. However, many non-Orthodox Jewish families do not participate in all traditions, and there is some flexibility in the way a family can carry out these traditions.
During the mourning period called "Shiva", it is traditional for family members of the deceased to cover mirrors so that they are not distracted by their appearance, tear their clothes, abstain from shaving, and refrain from work. After seven days of mourning, it is common for a family to take a walk around the block together, signaling the end of Shiva. It is also polite to bring food to family members and offer them help before, during, and after the funeral, because they will be abstaining from household duties such as cooking and cleaning.
Views on Organ Donation and Embalming
Embalming and other cosmetic procedures after death are not allowed unless required by law. However, organ donation is permitted and even encouraged. The act of saving another person’s life, "pikuach nefesh" in Hebrew, is considered an incredible honor.
The organization of Chevra Kadisha, the holy Jewish burial society, are in charge of preparing and protecting the body for burial. A "shomer", or guard, must stay with the body 24/7 until it is buried to ensure that it is not damaged. Soon after death, the body must be thoroughly submerged in or washed with water in a ritual cleansing called "tahara". The body is then covered in a white burial shroud, though now some communities and denominations allow the body to be dressed in other clothing.
Method of Body Disposition
Jews are traditionally buried and not cremated. However, a number of Jewish families nonetheless opt for cremation, and many Jewish cemeteries, funeral homes and clergy members will work with them.
The deceased is ideally buried within 24 hours, though in more liberal denominations a burial can be delayed due to travel times. The body should be kept in a plain casket made entirely of wood, and thus entirely biodegradable. Sometimes holes are carved out of the casket bottom to allow direct contact with the ground and speed up the return of the body to nature once buried.
During a Jewish funeral, men wear a black suit with a tie and a traditional yarmulke. Women typically wear a black skirt or dress that reaches below the knees. A general rule of thumb for both men and women is to dress in conservative dark clothing.
Jews are traditionally buried either in a specifically Jewish cemetery or in a part of a general community cemetery designated for Jewish use. A Jewish funeral often takes place graveside. The Rabbi begins the service with "keriah", the ritual tearing of clothing in which the deceased’s close family and friends rip their clothes to display a physical symbol of their loss.
In America, this ritual is often performed with black ribbons, which are torn then affixed to the clothing, rather than tearing the clothing itself. The officiant recites passages from the book of Psalms, leads the congregation in prayer, and finally delivers a eulogy in a way that reflects the deceased’s personality and life. Family members and friends are allowed to speak about their loved one after this, but it is not required. The service ends with a recitation of "El Malei Rachamim", which states that the deceased is sheltered beneath the wings of God’s presence.
Family and friends of the deceased carry the casket to the burial site. Being a chosen as a pallbearer is a great honor. Accompanying the dead to their final resting place is a crucial part of the Jewish faith, so the rest of the congregation usually walks with the pallbearers, stopping seven times on the way there to show their reluctance to let the deceased go.
There is usually no wake or visitation since burial must take place as soon as possible and it’s not customary for the community to view the body before burial. However, the family may have a private viewing to say goodbye.
When lowering the casket into the ground, the funeral attendees will chant Psalms. When paying their final respects, the mourners shovel dirt into the grave, filling it one by one. After the deceased is buried, funeral attendees will each place a stone near the grave marker in order to make a monument to the deceased.
Extended Mourning and Memorial Traditions
“Shiva”, Hebrew for the number seven (7), refers to the seven-day mourning period for the immediate family of the dead, but modern families can choose to end Shiva after one, two, or three days. Sitting Shiva is meant to “add structure” to a mourner’s life after the passing of a loved one, as well as allow the community to gather and give strength to the mourner. This routine allows a mourner to “gradually disengage” from mourning and therefore avoid delaying it, which can cause serious depression. During Shiva, one should be willing to comfort and listen to the mourner. Sharing stories of the deceased is encouraged, as is just sitting in silence together.
After the initial seven days, the mourners are able to reintegrate with the outside world, including going back to work, but mourning continues. During this continued period of morning, called "Sheloshim" (30 in Hebrew), the first month after a death, close family members avoid marrying, attending parties, or shaving, though some denominations are less strict on these requirements.
At the conclusion of Sheloshim, the formal mourning period ends, except for those who are mourning the loss of a parent. For these mourners, formal mourning, including the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, continues, lasting eleven months. This period is called "Shnat ha-evel".
Exactly one year after the death according to the Hebrew calendar is Yahrzeit, during which family members light a candle at sundown to honor their loved one. This is done every year to carry on memories from generation to generation.
Glossary of Terms
Aninut - The period from the moment of death until the burial is called aninut, and a mourner in this stage is called an Onen.
Onen - A mourner in the period in Aninut
Avelim - Mourners. The following people are "officially" designated as mourners: Parent, child, spouse, or sibling
Chevra Kadisha- “Holy society” in Hebrew. An organization of people in charge of ensuring that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial.
Tahara- “Pure” in Hebrew. The ritual cleansing performed on the deceased’s body.
Shomer- The person in charge of guarding the deceased’s body
Tachrichim or Kittel - Plain white burial shrouds used for Jewish burial
Keriah- “Tearing” in Hebrew. The act of tearing one’s clothes during a funeral to show mourning.
Shiva- “Seven” in Hebrew. The seven-day period of mourning after a death
Sheloshim- “Thirty” in Hebrew. The thirty-day period after a death, counted from the day of the funeral (and so includes the period of shiva).
Shnat ha-evel - The extended mourning period for those mourning the loss of a parent(s)
Yahrzeit- “Time of Year.” The anniversary of a family member’s death.
Seudat havra’ah - the meal of consolation immediately following the burial
Mourners Kaddish - the prayer traditionally recited in memory of the dead. The prayer, which is included in all three daily prayer services and is recited in a minyan of at least 10 adult Jews, makes no mention of death. Instead, it is a prayer dedicated to praising God.
Here are some other great resources on the topic of Jewish funerals: