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What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral

Jewish tradition teaches that human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). This is the underpinning of all of the rituals and customs that make up a Jewish funeral. This concept extends both to the deceased and the mourners. Each community has their own customs in regard to funeral practices. Some customs are dictated by tradition. Others are the result of local laws and regulations, especially when it comes to cemetery rules (see below). Nonetheless, certain key concepts are universally practiced by all streams of Judaism.

1. Location of the service

Jewish funerals can take place in a variety of locations. Some funerals are exclusively graveside; others occur in multiple locations-starting at the synagogue, or a funeral home, and then processing to the cemetery.

2. Timing of the service

Traditionally, burial takes place as soon as possible-within 24 hours. This is not always possible and, given the fact that many modern Jewish families are spread out around the country, it usually becomes necessary to wait a day or two until all of the mourners can arrive. Jewish funerals cannot take place on Shabbat or on most Jewish holidays.

3. Mourners/Avelim

Traditionally, Jewish mourners have specific responsibilities and prohibitions. Tradition teaches that the following people are "officially" designated as mourners: Parent, child, spouse, or sibling. This does not mean that others do not grieve the loss of the deceased, but avelim have specific roles to perform - both in the funeral service and the days preceding, and during the months following.

4. Accompanying the dead for burial

Jewish tradition teaches that one of the most important mitzvot (commandment) we can perform is helping our loved ones find their final resting place. This is both a symbolic and actual act. Our presence at a funeral is symbolic. Placing earth in the grave of a loved one (see below) is a powerful act of service and love.

5. Comforting the mourners/nichum avelim

One of the most important mitzvot that we can perform is the act of nichum avelim - comforting mourners. We do this in a variety of ways. Since this article is only about the funeral service, per se, I will not focus on the days and weeks that follow (shiva, sheloshim, yahrtzeit). When we attend a funeral and are not avelim ourselves, our very presence provides comfort. For mourners, knowing that you care enough to support them at their time of need is a powerful statement that goes far beyond the actual moments you are in attendance at the service.

6. Casket

Jewish tradition teaches that the deceased should be buried in a simple casket. It should be completely biodegradable. A kosher casket is made entirely of wood - with no nails whatsoever. Embalming is also not permitted (unless required by law). The reason for this is so that the process of decomposition can take place in a natural fashion. Open caskets are not permitted at Jewish funerals. In most cases, the closed casket is present at the service. Jewish law is also subject to local laws. As such, rules about embalming, grave liners, and other regulations that are in place for public health must be followed.

7. The order of the service in the chapel/sanctuary

While there are rituals that must be performed at a Jewish funeral, customs and traditions vary greatly depending on the community and the person who officiates at the service. Usually, a member of the clergy (rabbi or cantor) officiates, but this is not a religious requirement. What follows is the outline of the service that I usually use at a non-graveside service:

  • Gathering of the mourners - Traditionally, mourners do not greet attendees until after burial. Prior to the service, family members and loved ones of the deceased will gather together in a separate room and wait until the service is about to begin.
  • Keriah (tearing) - Just before the beginning of the service, the officiant will gather the mourners together and place a black ribbon on their outer garment. (In some Orthodox communities, an actual garment is torn.) This is usually done when the family members are gathered prior to the service. In some communities, keriah is performed after the service and/or in public. The officiant may explain that the act of tearing is an ancient ritual that serves several functions: 1) Since we are physical beings, we need to do something physical to express our grief; 2) It is a symbol of the tear in the fabric of the family after the death of a loved one; 3) It sets up a separation of status: prior to this moment, the mourners have had the responsibility of taking care of all of the details of the funeral and now their responsibility shifts to allowing the community to take care of them. As the ribbons/garments are being torn, the following is said by the mourners: "Baruch atah Adonai, Dayan Ha-Emet - Blessed are You, Adonai, Truthful Judge." Others may also recite the following 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." The ribbons or torn garments are traditionally worn on the outer garment for the first seven days of mourning-the period of shiva.
  • Procession of the mourners - Once all of the attendees are seated, the mourners are ushered into the service and seated in the front rows of the chapel.
  • Opening prayers - The service usually begins with the reading or chanting of Biblical passages , usually from the book of Psalms. This is followed by silent prayer and then a hespeid (eulogy) is delivered.
  • Hespeid (eulogy) - The purpose of the hespeid is to both honor the deceased and comfort the mourners (nichum aveylim). Usually the officiant delivers the eulogy after meeting with family members and loved ones. During this meeting, the officiant will ask loved ones to share stories and history about the deceased. Rabbis and cantors are specially trained to take this information and weave it together to paint a picture of the deceased. A eulogy should not tell an entire life story. Rather, it should be written and delivered in such a way that it reflects the essence of the person who has died and brings comfort to the mourners. Sometimes family members and close friends will want to speak about their loved one at the service. This can be a very important part of their mourning/grieving process. At the same time, no one should ever feel compelled to speak at the funeral of a loved one. Remarks should be brief and written down (very important). The reason for this is that, for whatever reason, if the family member is unable to deliver their remarks, the officiant can do it for them.
  • El Malei Rachamim - This is a prayer that is usually chanted that mentions the deceased by their Hebrew name and states that they are "sheltered beneath the wings of God's presence." The congregation stands during the chanting of this prayer.
  • Recession of family members - In most cases, after the El Malei Rachamim is recited, the family exits the chapel and retires to the separate family room in preparation for the funeral procession.
  • Removal of casket - After thefamily leaves, those individuals who have been honored as pall bearers will process from the chapel to the funeral carriage. The rest of the congregation waits until the casket has been escorted from the room. It is customary to recite Psalms during this procession. [ A note about pall bearers: Traditionally, pall bearers cannot be aveylim (mourners). Both men and women can serve as pall bearers in a Reform service. Those people who are not able to physically life the casket can also be designated as "honorary" pall bearers.]
  • Procession to Cemetery - A funeral procession from the chapel is formed by the vehicles of those in attendance who will be going to the cemetery. Again, it is considered to be an important mitzvah to accompany a person to their final resting place.

8. The order of the service - graveside

The cemetery service is very brief. Again, traditions vary by community, congregation, and officiant. The following reflects the basic customs:

  • Procession of the casket from the hearse to the grave - Once all of the mourners and attendees have gathered at the graveside, the pall bearers take the coffin out of the hearse and walk to the grave. In some communities, the procession stops seven times. There are many reasons for this custom. One basic reason is to acknowledge that this is a very difficult task and that we are in no hurry to conclude.
  • Lowering of the casket - This may vary from community to community. In some cases, the casket is lowered immediately while prayers are recited. In others, the lowering comes after the recital of prayers. Usually, the cemetery provides a lowering device which gently places the casket at the bottom of the grave.
  • Prayers at graveside - There are a short series of prayers dealing with mortality and love. In some communities, the El Malei Rachamim is again recited.
  • Mourners Kaddish - The mourners Kaddish is a doxology - a prayer extolling God. It does not specifically mention death. The Kaddish is recited by the mourners for the first time at graveside. Traditionally, it is recited every day for 11 months following burial and then on the yahrzeit (yearly anniversary) of the deceased.
  • Placing earth in the grave - Since the mitzvah of "accompanying the dead for burial" is so important, the act of placing earth into the grave takes on a very important role in the service. In some communities, the entire casket is covered with earth. In other communities, earth is symbolically placed in the grave. Often earth from the Land of Israel is also sprinkled on the casket. Some people use the back side of the shovel to show that this is not an easy task to perform. Each cemetery has their own rules as to how shoveling can take place.

9. Nichum Avelim (comforting the mourners) at the end of the service

After the service is concluded, the mourners return to the vehicle that will take them to the house where shiva will be observed. It is customary in some communities that the congregation forms two parallel lines facing each other, and, as the mourners pass in between, the following words are recited: " HaMakom yenachem etchem b'toch she'ar avalei Tzyion V'Yirushalayim - May God console you with all who mourn in the midst of the Gates of Zion and Jerusalem." Participants then proceed to the house of mourning to participate in the shiva.

Rabbi Joe Black is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO.