This post highlights general funeral practices of Jews. The actual practices of Jewish individuals, families, and congregations may vary.
There are four movements in Judaism with differing levels of ritual observance and attitudes toward the afterlife and treatment of the body. In terms of theology, Reform Judaism is at the most liberal end of the spectrum, followed by Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox (both traditional and modern).
Treatment of the body: The body is ritually washed and dressed in white linen by the volunteers of the Chevra Kaddisha, local Jewish burial organizations. Embalming is prohibited. The body is never put on display. Traditional Jewish law forbids cremation, but it is allowed among Reform Jews, who also allow organ donation. Autopsy is prohibited, unless it is requested by court order.
Funeral or memorial services: Funerals usually take place the day after the death, ideally within 24 hours, but with modern refrigeration, more liberal Jews will take up to two or three days before burial. Jewish holidays, Shabbat, or extraordinary circumstances, such as immediate family traveling from afar, are acceptable reasons for delay. The funeral service can be held at a synagogue/temple, a funeral home, or graveside. The service usually lasts between 15 to 60 minutes. A rabbi officiates and delivers a eulogy, a cantor sings, leading several prayers and psalms, and family members or friends may also deliver a eulogy. A program may indicate participants, but not necessarily the order of the ceremony. No books are used.
Do’s and Don’ts: Sign the guest book. Ushers may advise where to sit. If arriving late, do not enter when the bereaved family is entering or during prayers. It is not appropriate to take pictures or record the service (both audio and video). Guests are expected to stand (as they are able) with the other mourners. It is appropriate to visit the bereaved at home after the funeral for the shiva services.
Interment: Family and close friends should attend, optional for acquaintances. Graveside services vary depending on the family’s background and religious affiliation. At its simplest, the rabbi recites prayers and leads the family in the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the deceased. A traditional service includes a slow procession of the casket to the grave with seven pauses along the way. Seven is the number of completion in the Jewish tradition. Family members put one shovelful of earth into the grave, and guests may also participate in this custom. As the closest family members leave the gravesite, they pass between two rows of relatives and friends.
Post-Event Reception: After the burial, the family sits in mourning at home for seven days, a period of time called shiva. Visitors express condolences, sit quietly and talk to other callers. Wait to be spoken to by the principal mourners. Traditionally a short religious service of 10 to 20 minutes is held twice daily, in the morning and evening. Non-Jews may silently read the English and stand with others during the service. Food will most likely be served. Traditions at the house of mourning include covering mirrors and burning a seven-day memorial candle. Visitors arriving from the cemetery will find a pitcher of water at the door to wash their hands before entering the home. In a more traditional Jewish home, immediate family members may sit on small chairs or boxes, wear a black ribbon that has been torn or cut, and sport slippers or socks rather than shoes.
Gifts: Flowers are not appropriate. Charitable contributions made in memory of the deceased are customary. Food may be sent to the home of the bereaved. Check if the family keeps kosher and send food that conforms to the Jewish dietary laws.
Mourning period: A mourner stays away from work for a week. The mourner may return to a normal social schedule after a month to one year, depending the deceased’s relation to the person as well as personal inclination.
Mourning customs: Some Jews might observe shiva for just a few days and hold only an evening service at home. For eleven months, those who follow traditional practice will attend daily morning and/or evening services at the synagogue, to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer for the deceased. The anniversary of the death, called a yahrzeit, is marked with the lighting of a 24-hour candle and the deceased name is read at services in the synagogue. An unveiling of the grave marker takes place around the first anniversary of the death. Attendance at this simple ceremony is by specific invitation only.
Notes: At Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and some Reform funerals, men will asked to wear a small head covering called a yalmulke or kippah. Women may be asked to wear a hat at some Conservative funerals. Women at Orthodox funerals should wear clothing that covers the arms, with hems that fall below the knees and head covered with a hat or veil.
This information is included in A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die by Gail Rubin, author of The Family Plot Blog. The book, which includes funeral traditions for many major faiths, is available in print and ebook formats at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and at AGoodGoodbye.com.
Please post a comment to let me know if you find this information helpful, or if there are specific details you were looking for that this post did not address.