While many Jewish funeral rituals are the same across the world, some variations can be there depending on the deceased’s heritage. For instance, Ashkenazic Jews who are of the Eastern Europe descent and Sephardic Jews who are of the Middle Eastern or Spanish descent have different traditions around life cycle events, holidays, and others. Let’s begin with a common definition of Jewish funerals.
Introduction to Jewish Funerals
Jewish funerals are different in various ways from funerals of other cultures or religions like Christian funerals. Also, Jewish funeral etiquette varies. For example, there is no viewing. For honoring the departed, there is a closed casket, where family and friends are restricted from viewing the deceased person.
As a sense of respect, the departed one is not left alone from the death’s time until the funeral. Jewish volunteers can sit with the departed, often reading psalms, until the cremation. Usually, the time between burial and death is not long. Traditionally, Jewish burials are supposed to take place within 24 hours of death. This is done according to the Torah, sacred Jewish scripture, saying “You shall bury him the same day… His body should not remain all night.”
Today, outside of the Orthodox community, funerals occur this rapidly. However, the funerals should take place immediately after the death. Cremations never occur on holidays or the Sabbath. Before the departed is buried, the body should be washed ritually. Those who volunteer to do this righteous task are Jewish members of the holy society or “chevra Kadisha.”
Jewish volunteers are on call 24/7. Male members perform the rite on men who have passed and women perform the same for females. After the departed is washed, the departed one is clothed in a white linen shroud. Also, men wear a prayer shawl or “tallit.” A “kittel” is used to bury some people, which is a white garment worn on the High Holidays, and at weddings.
The Jewish Funeral Service
With conventional Jewish services, some funeral readings will be in Hebrew and English. Generally, the rabbi offers a brief explanation of the service’s Hebrew portions. It should be noted that rabbis are needed to perform funeral ceremonies, any Jewish person could do so. Flowers are music are usually prohibited.
Proper Clothing Attire
Jewish funeral etiquette may vary, typically women are asked for wearing a head covering and men a skullcap. Dark colors or black are suitable, as are respectful clothes like dresses, business attire, or suits.
One may notice that immediate family members wear black button-looking pins with ribbons hanging from them. These ribbons are then cut, which symbolize the anger and grief one experiences at the loved one’s loss. This ritual is known as “kriah”, which means “tearing”. This ancient tradition dates back to King David’s time. Most traditional Jews will tear their clothing’s collar.
The torn garment or ribbon is worn for “shiva”, seven days after the funeral. One may have heard of the term “sitting shiva”. In this seven-day period of intense mourning, the mourners sit on the floor traditionally. Also, they do not wear shoes so that they can focus on grieving.
The mourners stay at their place and a service is held each night. Today, most mourners only observe 1-2 days of shiva. During that time, people who go to the family’s home bring food, particularly kosher for serving both the guests and family. If you are unsure about what to bring, it is customary to provide round foods (hard-boiled eggs, bread, etc.). This symbolizes life’s continuity.
Many traditional Jews wear the torn piece for the complete thirty days of “shloshim” after the funeral. During the mourning period, it is a funeral tradition of Jews for refraining from cutting hair. Also, men refrain from shaving. Those observing “shloshim” don’t attend religious or social events. However, mourners may attend the religious ceremony but not the following festive meal.
At the Gravesite
At the gravesite ceremony, there is a simple wooden casket. This is not a reflection of how the family felt toward the departed. Instead, it is usual that every Jew is buried in a plain casket so as not to differentiate between the poor and the rich. Caskets must not be manufactured with a material like metal that slows down the nature of the body return to the elements. For this reason, embalming is restricted.
At the funeral, Jewish etiquette believes that members will be asked to help fill the grave with dirt. They will be asked to take and drop a shovelful of dirt onto the casket. Many Jewish people do not like to be cremated. This is a reaction mainly to the millions of Jews who lost their lives in the crematoria throughout the Holocaust. Also, people wash their hands while leaving the cemetery. This gesture is designated for disassociating the living from impurity and death.
After the Funeral
After the funeral, one may notice that all mirrors at the family’s home are covered. This Jewish tradition prevents mourners from getting distracted from focusing on the departed. Also, it keeps bereft from grooming and focusing on other less worldly matters.
About one year after the funeral, the family collects at the gravesite for an unveiling. The real gravestone is unveiled at that time. This gives the bereaved family closure after an adequate time to mourn.
FAQs Related to Jewish Funerals
- What should one wear for “shiva”?
One should dress appropriately. Males should wear a dress shirt and long pants. Women should dress conventionally. Skirts should fall to the ankle or below the knee.
- What does “Shemira” mean?
Shemira is the funeral tradition of Jews of watching over the departed person from the death’s time until the burial.
- What is the difference between shloshim and shiva?
Shiva is the time of reclusion and private mourning. Shloshim is also a mourning period. However, this time is assigned to re-enter the community. Usually, Shiva lasts for seven days and shloshim lasts for thirty days. However, this may vary depending on the time and other religious festivals. For guidance, you may ask a rabbi.
- How long are typical Jewish funerals?
Jewish funerals last for around 20 minutes. One will spend this time listening to a eulogy and readings from the psalms’ book.
- What can one expect to view on Jewish headstones?
The headstone can be elaborate or a simple as the deceased’s family selects, the primary difference is that a headstone for a member of the Jewish faith will include their Hebrew names.