Jewish Funeral and Burial Customs

Dec 10, 2009 | 0 comments

In ancient times, a family was responsible for burying their own deceased, and burial involved an earthly grave or a tomb. In Jesus’ time, bodies would be stored in tombs until the flesh deteriorated to the skeleton, then the bones transferred and stored in an ossuary, which is an urn or box.

How times have changed! Today’s families are no longer personally responsible for preparing and burying the body; instead they pay a funeral home to undertake those services. This is how the term “undertaker” originated. Funerals can be held at the funeral home’s chapel, in the synagogue, or at graveside. In the past, funerals have been held at the family’s home, but that is rarely done now.

Jewish tradition favors modesty and simplicity in its treatment of the dead, and ostentatious funerals are frowned upon. The thought is it’s better to give money to charity than to flaunt it at a funeral. Charitable contributions are preferred over floral tributes. The body is never put on display for people to view, as this is seen as disrespectful of the deceased.

At the funeral, the focus shifts from the care of the body of the deceased to the care of the mourners. Before a funeral starts, the close family of the deceased – parent, spouse, child, brother, sister – perform keria, a ritual tearing of garments. The custom originated in the Biblical account of Jacob tearing his garment when told by his sons that a wild beast killed Joseph. Today, we’re a little more practical. Rather than ruin an otherwise good article of clothing, mourners pin a torn black ribbon onto their clothing.

“A funeral is about embracing hard reality while finding comfort in tradition, in community, and in the celebration of life,” said Rabbi Joseph Black of Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Jewish funerals are generally short, simple affairs with three main elements: a eulogy that says truthful, good things about the deceased, the El Malei Rachamim, a prayer for the deceased, and the Mourner’s Kaddish, an ancient prayer in praise of God. However, the Mourner’s Kaddish is not said until the deceased is buried, so if it’s not a graveside funeral, this prayer will not be said until the time the body is actually placed in the ground.

To create a eulogy, Bruce Kahn, retired rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, said he would sit down with the family and discuss the person’s life in great detail for several hours, to truly know the person. Often things would come out that most family members didn’t know – both strengths and weaknesses. A no-holds-barred discussion is a cathartic experience for the mourners, and it enabled Rabbi Kahn to be accurate in the eulogy.  He would censor the material, though, saying, “ I know enough to say the right things,” adding, “Every eulogy I’ve given, the families ask for copies.”

The mourners follow the hearse in a procession as the body is transported to the cemetery, if the funeral is not held grave-side. The pall bearers help take the casket out of the hearse and carry it to the grave. Some words are usually spoken before the coffin is lowered.  Once the casket is positioned in the grave, all adults in attendance recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. A quorum of ten adults, called a minyan, must be present at the funeral in order for the prayer to be recited. The Kaddish is an ancient Aramaic poem that is an expression of faith, reinforcing that the mourner still believes in God and that life is worth living.

After the recitation, the mourners take turns shoveling some earth into the grave. The cemetery may provide hand trowels or long-handled shovels for this ritual. Traditionally, the back of the shovel is used, as this is meant to be a difficult thing to do. The mourners are not expected to actually fill the grave. The sound of the earth landing on the casket provides another reminder of the hard reality of the loved one’s death.

A memorial marker is not installed until later. Usually, an unveiling of the marker is held near the first anniversary of the person’s death, but the time frame for an unveiling can range from right after the shiva period ends to 18 months after the burial. Depending on the organization that runs the cemetery, Jewish cemeteries may have differing rules on whether non-Jewish spouses or partners may be buried there.

When leaving the cemetery, or before entering the home of the mourners after the funeral, visitors will often find a pitcher of water with which to wash their hands. This custom is connected with the ancient practice of purification through washing after being in close proximity to the dead.

A Good Goodbye