Guide to Jewish Funeral Practice
A Jewish funeral is a sacred rite and should be invested with both dignity and simplicity as taught by Jewish tradition.
The family of the deceased should consult the Rabbi when death occurs. Preplanning is encouraged. (See 7.12 of this GUIDE)
The Jewish way of dealing with death is one part of a larger philosophy of life in which all persons are viewed with dignity and respect. Our people believe that, even after death, the body, which once held a holy human life, retains its sanctity. Our sages have compared the sacredness of the deceased to that of an impaired Torah scroll which, although no longer useable, retains its holiness. In Jewish tradition, therefore, the greatest consideration and respect are accorded the dead.
Jewish law and tradition have endowed funeral and mourning practices with profound religious significance. To this end, Jewish funerals avoid ostentation; family and visitors reflect in dress and deportment the solemnity of the occasion; flowers and music are inappropriate; embalming and viewing are avoided; and interment takes place as soon as possible after death.
A Hevra Kadisha, a holy society traditionally supervises funerals in Jewish communities, consisting of volunteers who aid the bereaved and ensure that appropriate practices are followed. In some communities this is carried out by local cemetery societies or by funeral homes which observe Jewish customs and traditions.
The preparation and burial of the body are highly valued mitzvot. It is a chesed shel emet, an act of kindness performed without ulterior motive, for the dead cannot repay this service.
When a member of a community dies, it is the community's responsibility to lovingly assist the deceased's family in this final act.
1. Role of the Rabbi
- 1.1 Rabbinic Consultation - Families should consult the Rabbi as soon as possible when death occurs.
- 1.2 Rabbinic Guidance - Any questions regarding funeral arrangements and periods of mourning should be referred to the Rabbi for guidance.
2. Roles of the Hevra Kadisha, Funeral Director, and Cemetary Societies
- 2.1 Hevra Kadisha - Congregations should be encouraged to establish a Hevra Kadisha for assisting bereaved families in arranging for the funeral according to Jewish tradition. (See United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's "Guide to Hevra Kadisha.")
- 2.2 Funeral directors - Funeral directors may be used if they observe Jewish customs and traditions. The Rabbi should be consulted on the acceptability of a funeral director.
- 2.3 Cemetery societies - In some communities, there may be Jewish cemetery societies that can be used in place of a funeral director. The Rabbi should be consulted on the use of cemetery societies.
3. When Death Occurs
- 3.1 Time of Funeral/Burial - Jewish law requires that burial take place as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours of death. Burial may be delayed for legal reasons; to transport the deceased; if close relatives must travel long distances to be present at the funeral/burial; or to avoid burial on Shabbat or another holy day. It should not be delayed longer than necessary. Special cases such as death by accident or suicide, or death of children less than 30 days of age should be referred to the Rabbi for guidance. It is inappropriate to make arrangements on Shabbat itself.
- 3.2 Shmirah - Attending to the body Jewish tradition requires that the deceased not be left alone prior to burial. Hospitals should be requested to avoid disturbing the remains until the arrival of a Shomer (guardian). It is preferable that shomrim be members of the family, friends of the deceased, or members of the congregation. Tehillim (Psalms) are recited by the shomrim.
4. Aninut - Time Between Death and Burial
- 4.1 Autopsies and organ donation - The practice of routine autopsies is contrary to Jewish law, since autopsies are viewed as a desecration of the body. In most cases, when an autopsy is recommended, the family can refuse. In cases where the law requires an autopsy, it should be carried out under the supervision of a Rabbi who is familiar with the procedures. Organ donation may be viewed as an example of K'vod Ha-met (respect for the deceased) which brings healing to the living. Thus, willing certain organs or tissues is permissible and can be considered a mitzvah. The Rabbi should be consulted in all cases.
- 4.2 Embalming - According to Jewish tradition, embalming and the use of cosmetics on the deceased are not permitted. Embalming is not permitted unless required by civil law.
- 4.3 Cremation - Cremation is against Jewish tradition and the family of the deceased should be so advised by the Rabbi. Should a family ignore a Rabbi's advice against cremation, the Rabbi may still choose to officiate in the funeral parlor before the body is cremated. Ashes should be interred in a Jewish cemetery, but the interment should be private without the presence of a Rabbi. In a situation where the Rabbi's ruling has not been defied by the family but rather the Rabbi is faced with a fait accompli, the rabbi may choose to conduct services at the cemetery. The urn should have an opening so the ashes come in contact with the earth. (This paragraph is the conclusion of a teshuva which was unanimously adopted by the RA's CJLS, Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 1986, written by Rabbi Morris Shapiro. It can be found in the Proceedings of the RA CJLS volume 1986-1990)
- 4.4 Taharah (Ritual cleansing) - Jewish law requires that the deceased be cleansed according to prescribed ritual as an expression of respect. A group of specially trained persons called a Hevra Kadisha (holy society) or a Jewish funeral director should perform the mitzvah.
- 4.5 Tachrichim (Shroud and burial attire) - Jewish law prescribes burial in plain white shrouds (tachrichim) so as to demonstrate the equality of all. In addition, a Jewish male is customarily buried wearing a kipah and his own talit.
- 4.6 Aron (Casket) - To avoid interference with the natural process of "returning to the earth," Jewish tradition requires that an aron be made entirely of wood. Consult the Rabbi for details.
- 4.7 K'riah (Rending the garment) - Mourners for parents, a spouse, children, or siblings traditionally participate in the rite of K'riah (rending of garments) usually just prior to the funeral service. This rite consists of tearing a visible portion of clothing (lapel, pocket, or collar, for example) The torn garment is worn throughout the 7-day mourning period (shivah). In many communities the mourner wears a black ribbon. The ribbon is cut in the manner outlined above instead of cutting the garment. The tearing for parents is on the left side over the heart and for all other relatives on the right side.
- 4.8 Onen (Bereaved person) - Between the time of death and the funeral, an immediate family member of the deceased is called an onen. The onen is exempt from the performance of all affirmative religious obligations, such as reciting the three daily services or putting on tefillin during aninut. At this time the onen is forbidden to drink wine, eat meat or indulge in luxuries. If aninut should occur on a Shabbat or a festival, the onen is permitted to eat meat and drink wine and is obligated to fulfill all mitzvot except sexual obligations with a spouse. The reason for these proscriptions is twofold. First is the principle that the bereaved is obligated to attend to the needs of the deceased. There should be nothing to distract someone from these obligations. Second, it is considered a breach of K'vod Ha-Met to do anything but attend to the deceased. Hence, a mourner is not required to perform religious obligations. The exemption need not apply when organized groups or commercial firms take care of burial needs, and the participation of the family is minimal. The solace and comfort derived from prayer and the performance of mitzvot would suggest that we should encourage such observances. The laws of aninut, as well as all the laws of mourning, apply to the seven specific relatives: spouse, father and mother, son and daughter, brother and sister. (See: A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice - Isaac Klein)
5. The Funeral
- 5.1 Services - Funeral services may be held in the synagogue, in a funeral home, or at the gravesite. The funeral service is usually brief and simple. It usually includes the chanting of psalms and Eyl Malei Rahamim (the traditional memorial prayer), and a hesped (eulogy) honoring the deceased. Often the psalms and Eyl Malei Rahamim are chanted by the Cantor.
- 5.2 Viewing - Viewing the body either publicly or privately is contrary to Jewish tradition.
- 5.3 Pall and pallbearers - At a funeral, the casket may be covered with a specially prepared cloth, called a pall, and is borne from the funeral service to the gravesite by family or friends (pallbearers) selected by the mourners.
- 5.4 Fraternal ceremonies - Fraternal ceremonies which interfere with the solemnity of the Jewish funeral service are not appropriate.
- 5.5 Carrying the casket - The pallbearers customarily stop seven times while carrying the casket to the grave. The mourners, family and friends follow the casket as a mark of respect.
- 5.6 K'vurah - Burial - In traditional practice, the casket is lowered into the earth and the grave filled, using a reversed shovel until a mound is formed over the casket. The Kaddish is recited at the grave after k'vurah is completed. There are different customs or variations and the Rabbi should be consulted.
- 5.7 Leaving the cemetery - It is customary for the mourners to pass between two rows of people in attendance to receive traditional expressions of consolation. After burial, washing one’s hands when leaving the cemetery or before entering the house of mourning is also traditional.
- 5.8 Non-Jewish spouse buried in a Jewish cemetery - As a rule, non-Jews may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has considered several exceptions to this rule. The Rabbi should be consulted on this matter.
6. The Mourning Period
- 6.1 Who is obligated - Mourners are those whose parent, spouse, child, or sibling has died.
- 6.2 Shivah - Initial period of mourning - Shivah is the seven-day period of intensive mourning observed by the immediate family of the deceased beginning on the day of the burial. During the entire shivah period mourners are encouraged to stay away from work or school, and to remain at home. It is, also, a time to contemplate the meaning of life and the manner in which adjustment will be made to the death of the beloved. Public mourning observances are suspended on the Shabbat in view of the belief that the sanctity and serenity of this day supersedes personal grief. Mourners are permitted, and encouraged, to attend Shabbat services; but they are not given an aliyah, may not conduct services, and they do not display the k'riah publicly. The major festivals terminate shivah. (For details consult the Rabbi.) Since Judaism teaches that the feeling of loss of a human life is not limited to the descendent's family alone, but is shared by the entire community, it is customary for the name of the deceased to be recalled at the Shabbat service after the funeral.
It is customary for family and friends to arrange for a seudat havra’a, condolence meal, which traditionally includes round foods such as eggs, which are symbolic of the cycle of life, to be served the mourners at the house of mourning upon their return from the cemetery.
It is customary, as expressions of mourning, for mirrors in the shivah home to be covered, for a seven-day memorial candle to be kindled, for the mourners to refrain from wearing leather shoes and for males to refrain from shaving. In ancient times, mourners sat on the floor to experience discomfort. Today, we reflect that experience by sitting on lower or harder chairs without cushions. Greetings of Shalom between mourners and visitors are not normally exchanged.
The house of mourning should reflect solemnity.
Every day, the mourner recites Kaddish at the Shaharit, Minha and Ma'ariv service. A minyan is required. It is preferable to have the services in the home of the mourner. If a minyan cannot be assured then the mourner attends the synagogue service. On Shabbat, mourners join the synagogue service and receive public condolences.
Mourners shall not deem themselves as hosts who are obligated to serve their visitors during the mourning period.
- 6.3 Shloshim - The first thirty days - During the thirty days following burial, after the observance of shivah, mourners return to work and activities but refrain from public entertainment or social activities. The k'riah is customarily worn during shloshim. In place of home services, mourners participate in synagogue services daily and recite Kaddish.
- 6.4 Shanna - Twelve months: The duration of the mourning period - Mourners for deceased parents attend services daily to recite Kaddish for eleven Hebrew months, and continue to refrain from public celebratory activities for the full twelve months. Other mourners often choose to say Kaddish during this period as well.
- 6.5 Yahrzeit - Anniversary of death - The Kaddish is recited each year on the Hebrew calendar anniversary of death. It is customary to light a yahrzeit (24 hour burning) candle, to study a portion of Torah or Mishnah, and to donate tzedakah on the anniversary. Consult your Rabbi for the exact date.
- 6.6 Yizkor - Memorial prayers - The Yizkor is recited on Yom Kippur; Sh'mini Atzeret, the eighth day of Pesach; and the second day of Shavuot. The Rabbi should be consulted to determine when the first Yizkor is recited. Some Jews follow the custom of lighting a yahrzeit candle on each of these occasions, others only on Yom Kippur.
- 7.1 Kohanim - Priests - There are special provisions related to the attendance of kohanim at a funeral. Consult the Rabbi.
- 7.2 Flowers - Friends and associates of the deceased who wish to express condolences should be encouraged to contribute to a Tzedakah Fund important to the deceased or the family.
- 7.3 Nichum Avaylim: Condolence calls - Condolence calls to comfort the mourner should be made after the funeral, during the shivah period, except on Shabbat.
- 7.4 Opportunities to participate in a mitzvah include helping with:
- Funeral arrangements
- Cemetery arrangements
- Condolence meals
- Shivah minyanim
- 7.5 Limbs - Limbs must be buried, if not interred previously, with the rest of the body. If organs are to be used for transplantation, the rest of the body must be buried promptly. If willed to an organ bank, then the remainder of the body is to be buried. Burial is required of limbs removed from a patient who survives.
- 7.6 Miscarriages - Burial may be required for fetal remains. The Rabbi should be consulted.
- 7.7 Stillborn - We should rely upon the local minhag (custom) and the local Rabbi's understanding of the situation involved as well as the decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. Burial is required.
- 7.8 Adar - The yahrzeit of a person who died during the month of Adar in a regular year is observed in a leap year during Adar I. Similarly, there are other special cases involving the yahrzeit of a person who died on the thirtieth day of Marcheshvan, Kislev or First Adar, all of which are dates which do not occur every year. In all such circumstances, the Rabbi should be consulted to determine the correct Yahrzeit date.
- 7.9 Intermarriage - An intermarried Jew is allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. A Rabbi may not officiate in any way at the funeral of a Jew who is intermarried and will be buried in a cemetery of another faith group.
- 7.10 Suicide - A suicide considered to be the result of mental illness does not disqualify a Jew from burial in a Jewish cemetery. Based upon the Rabbi's knowledge of an individual who has committed suicide, the Rabbi determines if burying the individual in a Jewish cemetery is appropriate.
- 7.11 Unveiling - There is no required formal rite. If a ritual service is conducted, it may be anytime after one month has passed. Often it is conducted close to the first yahrzeit.
- 7.12 Pre-Planning - Advance purchase of gravesites is important and appropriate. Providing designated relatives with vital information to direct the decisions and allow the family to follow the Tradition and wishes of the deceased is sensitive and wise. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly has prepared useful material on Living Wills which should be utilized by those engaged in advance planning. Information that will be needed on hand at the time of death:
- Full name of the deceased
- Hebrew name, Hebrew name of father and mother
- Date of birth and location of birth certificate
- Place of birth
- Mother's maiden name
- Social Security number and where card is kept
- Location of will, legal advisor’s telephone number
- Life insurance agent’s telephone number
- Life insurance policy numbers and where policies kept
- Location of safe deposit box, key, and who has access
- Bank account numbers - checking and savings and where kept
- Securities information and where securities kept
- Cemetery deed/location
- Real estate and how title is held
- Military service and where discharge papers kept
- Rabbi to be notified
- Funeral home choice
- Adar - The last month of the Jewish lunar year
- Aliyah - Blessings recited by honoree on being called to the Torah
- Aninut - Time period from death to burial
- Aron - Casket carrying the physical remains of a Jew
- Chesed shel emet - Compassionate concern and kindness of the living for a deceased
- Eyl Malei Rahamim - Memorial prayer recited at funeral service, on visiting a gravesite, during Yizkor services
- Hesped - Eulogy of tribute to a deceased
- Hevra Kadisha - Holy society of men or women who wash and clothe a deceased in keeping with Jewish tradition
- K'riah - Tear in a garment of a mourner
- K'vod Ha-met - Respect for the deceased
- K'vurah - Burial of the deceased
- Kaddish - Aramaic language prayer in praise of God, recited by mourners
- Kohen - One of three categories to designate a Jew based on birth lineage
- Levi - Category of Jew based on birth lineage
- Minhag - A Jewish custom, often becomes normative practice
- Minyan - Quorum of ten Jews required for public prayer
- Mishnah - Third century C.E. compilation of Jewish law
- Mitzvah - Divine (or Rabbinic) commandment incumbent to be fulfilled by Jews
- Nichum Avaylim - Comforting the mourners after burial and for the seven days of shivah
- Onen - Those individuals who have suffered a loss - after the death until the burial
- Pesach - Eight day holiday, Feast of Freedom
- Seudat Havra'a - Condolence meal served to mourners upon return from cemetery burial
- Sh'mini Atzeret - Eighth day of Assembly, immediately follows Sukkot, precedes Simhat Torah
- Shalom - Means peace, completeness; hello or goodbye
- Shanna - Year. Applies to the eleven months of Kaddish
- Shavuot - Two day holiday, seven weeks after Pesach, marks Giving of Torah by God to Jewish people
- Shivah - Seven day mourning period begins after burial
- Shloshim - Thirty day continuing mourning period; twenty three days plus shivah
- Shmirah - Attending to the deceased body, remaining at all times until burial
- Shomer - The person who attends to the body, recites psalms to honor deceased
- Tachrichim - Shrouds placed on deceased
- Taharah - Ritual washing of deceased by Hevra Kadisha Tehilim Psalms recited while attending to deceased Torah Five Books of Moses
- Tzedakah - Act of righteousness, donation in memory of deceased to a worthy organization
- Yahrzeit - Yiddish. Anniversary of the death
- Yisrael - Category of Jew based on birth lineage
- Yizkor - Remembrance. Memorial prayers recited at synagogue service on four Jewish holidays
- Yom Kippur - Day of Atonement. Twenty five hour period of reflection, prayer, repentance; non-eating or drinking by Jewish community