Elements of a Jewish Graveside Service

Aug 25, 2012 | 0 comments

Jewish Cemetery

As I do with all of the funerals I cover, I asked the family if I may do a story about their loved one for the 30 Funerals in 30 Days Challenge. The family for this graveside service held at Congregation Albert’s cemetery granted permission, pending a review of the story.

After reading what I had written, the family requested the stories they told about their loved one remain private. Instead, I will share elements of Jewish tradition in a graveside funeral.

Before the service started, the family participated in the ceremony called keria or kriah. Family members who participate in this ceremony are mourning the loss of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child. Kriah is always performed standing. The act of standing shows strength at a time of grief.

Traditionally, the mourner tears their clothing as Jacob did when told of the death of his son Joseph (who his brothers had actually sold into slavery in Egypt). Outside of the Orthodox sects of Judaism, most U.S. Jews tear a ribbon. The cut ribbon is placed on the left side of the clothing for parents–over the heart–and on the right side for all other relatives. Sometimes people choose to express deep feelings of grief by putting the ribbon on the left side for relatives other than their parents.

Cantor Barbara Finn explained that the tearing of a black ribbon represents the physical tear of separation and emotional tear we feel in our hearts over the loss of a loved one.

It also represents a change in the family’s status. Upon learning of the death, the family focuses on making the arrangements for the funeral. At the start of the funeral, the focus shifts and the family moves from being caretakers to being taken care of by their community.

The family recited this prayer before tearing the ribbon: Baruch Atah Adonai, Dayan Ha-Emet – Blessed are you our God, the Truthful Judge. Immediate family may wear the ribbon for up to 30 days following the funeral as a sign of mourning.

The pallbearers removed the casket from the hearse and walked slowly over to the grave. The casket was positioned on top of the lowering device. About 40 people gathered around for the service.

Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld started by saying “Death has taken our beloved (name). May the family find the presence of friends to be a comfort.” The cantor sang a psalm in Hebrew and the rabbi recited these psalms in English:

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
What is the source of my help?
My help comes from Adonai,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot give way—
your Protector will not slumber;
See, the Protector of Israel
 neither slumbers nor sleeps.
God is your Guardian,
God is your protection at your right hand
The sun will not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
God will guard you from all harm
God will guard your soul,
your going and coming, now and forever.

Psalm 15

Adonai, who may abide in Your House?
Who may dwell in Your holy mountain?
Those who are upright; who do justly;
who speak the truth within their hearts;
Who do not slander others, or wrong them,
or bring shame upon them;
Who scorn the lawless, but honor those who revere God;
Who give their word, and, come what may, do not retract;
Who do not exploit others; who do not take bribes.
Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.

Everyone recited the 23rd Psalm (God is my shepherd, I shall not want…) and the rabbi read a lovely poem recited at the Yom Kippur Yizkor remembrance service.

In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
In the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
In the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
For they are now a part of us as we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we have joys we crave to share, we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us,
As we remember (name).

The rabbi invited the family to take time to remember and speak. This is when speakers share memories that prompt smiles and laughter as well as tears.

After the remembrances were over, the rabbi recited another poem, Epitaph by Merritt Malloy:

When I die if you need to weep
Cry for your brother or sister
Walking the street beside you
And when you need me put your arms around anyone
And give them what you need to give me.

I want to leave you something
Something better than words or sounds.

Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved
And if you cannot give me away
At least let me live in your eyes and not on your mind.

You can love me most by letting hands touch hands
By letting bodies touch bodies
And by letting go of children that need to be free.

Love doesn’t die, people do
So when all that’s left of me is love
Give me away.

The cantor sang El Malei Rachamim (God full of mercy). The rabbi said, “(Name), go your way, for God has called you.” As the casket was lowered, everyone recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Earth and Shovels

The family used shovels to drop earth onto the lid of the casket. The tradition is for each person to place the shovel back in the earth, so pain should not pass from hand to hand. Many Jews use the back of the shovel, as this is meant to be a hard thing to do. Mourners may also use their hands to drop earth on the casket.

The friends at the funeral were asked to form two rows for the family to pass through as they left the grave. In unison they recited, “May God console you with the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Go your way in peace.”

As the assembled prepared to depart, the funeral director gave the family a shiva candle to light when they got to the home of the deceased. Shiva, which is the number seven in Hebrew, is the seven days of intense mourning after a funeral. The family retreats to the home to receive the support of their community, including food and daily prayer services. More information about “sitting shiva” is available at Shiva.com.

A Good Goodbye