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A Short Guide to The Simple Memorial Traditions of the Hebrew World
Jewish funerals, also known as “shivas” are often very simple and brief affairs. They are perhaps the most simple of all memorial ceremonies practiced throughout the world, in fact. And many people over the centuries - even those of different faiths - can be said to have been influenced by this simple, naturalistic approach to a memorial ceremony. So, our brief introduction into the simple traditions of Jewish funerals can be quite helpful for just about anyone interested in planning a funeral in their own family.
In preparation for Jewish funerals, Talmudic law forbids cremation or embalming, and requires that the deceased be placed in a simple wooden casket, which will often have the Star of David on top, such as that in the example photo to the right. The “Chevra Kadisha” a sacred burial society will often be used to ensure that the body is ready for the funeral. They will consider what the deceased should wear, as well clean every part of his body. They also tend to makeup and hair styling as well.
As Jewish funerals begin, the relatives and friends of the departed will often tear their clothes in order to symbolize the grief that they have over their loss. Reformed Jews, who typically take a more liberal approach to Jewish law, are the exception, and will often skip this part of the service. The rabbi too will often tear his garments as he recites in Hebrew, “Blessed are you Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, the true Judge.”
The congregation will often remain standing as the family leaves the room. At this point, in traditional Jewish funerals, there are strict laws about who performs what task. Those who will not attend the burial will help to lift the casket into the hearse. This is known as the “mitzvah.” Since those with the last name “Cohen,” are believed by Jews to descend from the Levitical priests, they not allowed to attend the burial service, since it is forbidden by scriptural law. They are however allowed to stand outside of the cemetery, and will often do so. It is not until well after these services that the family would address the placement of a tribute grave marker on the area of rest of their loved one.
A non-Cohen rabbi will preside over the burial segment of Jewish funerals by reciting Psalm 91, followed by repeating the “Blessed are you our God,” prayer as the mourners form two lines. They then pass by the family, saying in Hebrew, “May God comfort you among all of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
After the casket is lowered into the grave, the mourners will then begin to bury it by throwing clumps of dirt upon the casket. Eventually, they will take a shovel and bury it the rest of the way, never pulling it out of the ground as they hand it off. This way, it is thought, they will not transfer their own grief to the other mourners, who undoubtedly have plenty of grief of their own. Following this, in traditional Jewish funerals the bereaved will wash their hands as both a symbolic and physical cleansing, which is considered the formal end of a Jewish funeral service.
Since Judaism is such a traditional religion, Jews will often be buried in family plots. It is often considered polite at Jewish funerals to also ask the family members about other family members buried at these plots.
Following Jewish funerals, there is a period of mourning for the family. For traditional Jews, this goes on for seven days, beginning as the family returns to the cemetery after sunset the day of the funeral. Reform Jews have shortened this period to 3 or even 1 day. During this time, they cover all of the mirrors in the house and sit on “shiva benches” as they pray for the departed. While this mourning period goes on, Jews are not to concern themselves with food. They do however welcome guests to mourn with them, who will usually bring something for them to eat. This helps Jews to cope with their loss, and allows friends to minister to them. Often, as with other religions, Jews will try to console the departed’s family by sharing memories of their loved one. Traditional Jews however have guidelines during this time as well. For example, in the 30 days following the departure of a loved one, they are not allowed to marry, attend any formal celebrations, and (unless the occasion was set prior to the death) shave, or get haircuts. They are also obliged to recite the “kaddish,” a special prayer for the departed during synagogue services for the next 11 months. This prayer also magnifies the glory of God and thanks Him for playing such a special role in the departed’s life.