Understanding the Jewish Funeral
Most Jewish funeral traditions are the same around the world however, there are some variations depending on one’s heritage. For example, Ashkenazic Jews (Eastern Europe) and Sephardic Jews (Spanish/Middle Eastern descent) have differing traditions around holidays, life cycle events and more. To honor the deceased, the casket remains closed, with friends and family prohibited from seeing the person who has passed.
Prior to the Funeral
Out of respect, the deceased is not left alone from the time of death until the funeral. Jewish community volunteers sit with the deceased often reading psalms until the burial.
The time between death and burial is not long — usually within 24 hours of death. This is done in accordance with the Torah, sacred Jewish scripture, which states, “You shall bury him the same day…. His body should not remain all night.” Outside of Orthodox communities funerals rarely occur this quickly. It is important to note that burials never take place on the Sabbath or holidays.
The deceased must be ritually washed prior to burial. Those who volunteer to do this righteous task are members of a “chevra kadisha,” or holy society. Men perform the ritual on males who have passed, and women do so for females and are available 24 hours a day. Once washed, the deceased is clothed in a white linen shroud. Men wear a “tallit,” or prayer shawl. Some people are buried in a “kittel,” a white garment worn on the High Holidays and sometimes at weddings.
At the funeral, some of the readings will be in Hebrew and some will be in English during a traditional Jewish service. Typically, the rabbi will offer a brief explanation of the Hebrew portions of the service. A rabbi is not required to perform the funeral service as any Jewish person can do so.
While it may be instinctual to send flowers to the bereaved as a sign of respect, it is typically prohibited. Music is not played during the service as well.
Dress etiquette varies at a Jewish funeral. It is customary for men to wear a skullcap and women a head covering. Black or dark colored suits, dresses, or business attire is appropriate and respectful. Traditional Jews will tear the collar of their clothing. This tradition is called “kriah,” which means “tearing.” It is an ancient tradition that dates back to the time of King David. Immediate family members wear a black button-looking pin with a ribbon hanging from it. The ribbon is then cut — a symbol of grief and anger that one experiences at the loss of a loved one.
The torn ribbon or garment is worn for “shiva,” the seven days following the funeral. The term “sitting shiva” is a seven-day period of intense mourning. Mourners traditionally sit on the floor without shoes and focus on grieving. They stay at home and a service is held there each night. Today, many mourners only observe one or two days of shiva. During this time, those who go to the home bring kosher food to serve both the family and guests. It’s a part of tradition to offer round foods which symbolize the continuity of life.
Traditional Jews will wear the torn item for the entire thirty days of “shloshim” after the funeral. During mourning, it is tradition to refrain from cutting one’s hair. Additionally, men refrain from shaving. Those observing “shloshim” do not attend social or even religious events. Mourners may attend the religious event but not the take part in the festive meal that follows.