Jewish Funeral Practices
The Importance of a Funeral
The chapel service provides the mourner with the environment to express grief; to see friends and family, which helps the bereaved to accept the reality of death.
The Jewish funeral ritual is a profound expression of our Jewish heritage. It doesn't just recognize that a life has ended; it honors that a life was lived. It gives purpose to the indomitable Jewish will to survive.
The funeral helps the survivors to heal emotionally and gives us comfort and elevates our sense of family. Grief is part of the healing process that allows us to separate ourselves from the deceased person and go on with our lives.
The funeral brings together a community of mourners who, by supporting each other, can help themselves through a difficult period.
To resolve their grief, mourners need to accept the reality of death not only on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level as well. It is for this reason that the traditional funeral is important.
A funeral confirms the reality of death and serves as a focus for expressing feelings of loss.
"Gathering together for the service we offer support and share sorrow. Grief shared is grief diminished."
- Rabbi Earl Grollman
Information for Mourners
One is considered a mourner upon the death of the following relatives: father and mother, husband or wife, son and daughter, brother and sister (also half-brother and half-sister).
K'reeah (Rending of Garment)
To indicate grief, a cut is made in the outer garment or black ribbon worn by the mourner. For a parent, the rend is made on the UPPER left side downward over the heart; for other relatives, it is made on the right side downward. This ceremony is performed standing up to teach us to "meet all sorrow standing upright." This cut garment or black ribbon is work during the seven days of Shiva.
The ritual washing and purification of the deceased by memebrs of the Chevra Kadisha, "The Sacred Society," or, in its absence, by religiously and physically competent Jewish persons.
The watching over the deceased by a pious Jew or Jewess until members of the family assemble for the funeral services, so that the deceased is not left unattended. Thilim (Psalms) are recited.
The traditional white burial shrouds symbolizing that all men are equal before their Creator.
The actual burial in the ground, or filling in the grave with earth. To participate in filling the grave is a mitzvah.
The mourner's Kaddish is recited by the mourners in the synagogue at every service morning and evening for a period of eleven months from the date of burial. The Kaddish is recited in the presence of a Minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish men). Kaddish is repeated on the anniversary date of death (Yahrzeit).
Shiva refers to the first seven days of intensive mourning including the day of burial. One hour of the seventh day is regarded as a full day. Mourning customs are not observed on the Sabbath or Festivals. When the burial takes place prior to a Festival and the mourners have observed Shiva for at least one hour before the holiday begins, then the period of Shiva is terminated with the advent of the Festival at sunset. When the burial occurs on a Festival, the Shiva begins on the night the Festival is over. The last day of the Festival is considered the first day of Shiva.
A light (Shiva candle) is kept burning in the house of Shiva during the entire seven days. A child under thirteen years of age is not obligated to observe the mourning rites.
It is customary for mourners to remain at home on weekdays sitting on a low seat, wearing slippers rather than leather shoes, and refraining from transacting any business.
The custom of covering mirrors in the house of Shiva has been interpreted as a symbol of avoiding excessive self-concern and seeing ourselves in the depressed state of a mourner.
Sheloshim (First thirty days)
The secondary period of mourning is called Sheloshim which includes the first thirty days after the funeral. The rent ribbon or garment is worn during the Sheloshim period except on the Sabbath and Festivals. Mourners should not participate in any festivity or amusement during these thirty days. In the case where the deceased was a parent, this principle applies for the entire first year.
Visitation at Graves
Visitation at graves of departed may be made as often as one wishes following the period of Sheloshim. It is customary to visit graves during the months of Elul and Tishri, prior to the High Holy Days particularly.
Yahrzeit (Anniversary of day of death)
The Yahrzeit is observed annually on the date of death. When three or more days have elapsed from the day of death until the interment, the first Yahrzeit is observed on the anniversary of the interment, and thereafter, it is observed on the anniversary of the death.
The Yahrzeit commences on the preceding day at sunset and is concluded on the anniversary day of death at sunset.
During this time, the Yahrzeit light is kept burning and Kaddish is recited in the synagogue during services.
It is customary to make a charitable contribution to the memory of the deceased.
The memorial prayer of Yizkor is said four times a year during Temple services. It is said on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzereth, Pesach and Shavuoth. It is not said during the first year of mourning.
Belongings of the Departed
Articles belonging to the dead such as a wig or artificial teeth (considered a part of one's body) are not used by others; these should be buried with the person who died.
Ornaments such as rings, pins and clothes are used by the living.
It is a Mitzvah, a worthy deed, to pay a condolence call after the funeral. By our visit we show the mourners that we do not forget them; we illustrate to them that we understand their sorrow and we share it with them.
Levity and laughter are obviously out of place. Rather, the conversation should center around the personality and character of the departed. In this manner, the departed is memorialized.
The Unveiling Ceremony
The unveiling is the formal dedication of the headstone. It is customary for the unveiling to take place 12 months after the funeral as a way to mark the end of the formal mourning period. However, the unveiling may take place any time after sh'loshim, 30 days.
Jewish law requires that a grave be marked, but the type of marking and the headstone are not specified.
Traditionally, the ceremony includes the recitation of a few psalms and selected verses, followed by unveiling prayer. Chanting of the El Maleh Rachamin Memorial Prayer is then followed by The Mourner's Kaddish, which concludes the service.
How to Counsel
Your visit to the mourner at home is more than a courtesy call. In Jewish tradition, the moment is too ciritcal for mere courtesy. It calls for consolation. During this brief visit you could bring comfort to someone in need, or you could act as just another spectator to tragedy. The mandate of our humanity and of our religion is that we bring sensitivity and empathy to those who mourn. The following are suggestions for helping implement your natural healthy feelings during such visits.
When Visiting the Mourner
In Judaism, we believe that your very presence in the mourner's home marks the beginning of consolation. If you feel uncomfortable, know that it is understandable and perfectly natural.
- Let the mourner begin to talk and set the tone, especially in sensitive situations such as suicide or young deaths or guilt-ridden grief.
- Listen considerately - not as though you are taking a breather before beginning to talk again. It is better to be silent than overly talkative.
- Show concern for the mourner's well-being. Your face should wear a mien of seriousness, not necessarily sadness.
- Ideally, your conversation should not be distracting, but therapeutic. The mourner's "small talk" should trigger your interest as though it is of great import.
- Speak of the departed. It may appear to be hurtful, but in fact it helps the mourner to unburden himself. Recall the major events in his life, his opinions on important matters, the quality of his relationships.
- Levity may bring you relief - but it is inappropriate for the mourners. However, humorous anecdotes of the deceased spoken respectfully are quite in place.
- Do not dwell on your own mourning experiences as it may appear to belittle the grief of the newly-bereaved.
- Do not offer gratuitous psychological advice.
- Conclude your words of consolation with hope - that the values of the departed will be incorporated by his relatives and friends; that the sunlight of health and happiness will shine once again on the family members; that this tragedy will turn into an experience of personal growth; and that the behavior of his survivors will reflect on the worth of the departed.