Article Courtesy of Shiva.com
Whether preplanning a funeral, making at-need arrangements, or answering questions regarding ways to mourn the loss of a Jewish family member, it is important to understand the customs surrounding Jewish death and mourning. In particular, if you serve families of the Jewish faith, knowing the various rituals and customs of Judaism will help you provide appropriate options.
In today’s world, with families dispersed throughout the nation, interfaith marriages, and religious practices that may vary between family members and generations, it is important to remember the individual planning a funeral may have less familiarity with Jewish funeral traditions than the parent or grandparent who is being buried. The selection of traditional or modern practices is often dependent on an individual or family’s level of observance. In many situations, it is left to the funeral director to help guide these families. Step-by-step guidance and checklists, along with access to a series of educational seminars and connections with a network of professionals can be found on shiva.com and Jewish Funeral Group. In addition, shiva.com has a comprehensive set of tools for families and funeral and cemetery professionals containing detailed explanations on ways to support and guide Jewish families.
Guiding Jewish Families Through Funeral and Burial Options
The Jewish religion and culture are rich with traditions. Jewish funeral customs are no different. In the traditional context, there is a set of practices, based on the Torah, which has been carried through the generations. Within Judaism, there are three main affiliations (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) or branches commonly referred to as movements with differing religious philosophies. Often, individuals of the Jewish faith identify with one of these Jewish sects and maintain a viewpoint of strict interpretation of Jewish law, a more liberal belief system or a variant thereof. Based on an individual’s religious perspective, a family may choose to observe certain customs that are significant and meaningful to their family. For funeral directors, it is important to have knowledge and awareness of the Jewish funeral traditions.
Timing: When a Jewish Funeral Takes Place
According to Jewish law, the funeral and burial traditionally take place within 24 hours following the death. There are exceptions based on practical and logistical considerations. Some exceptions include transporting the deceased to another city and coordinating immediate and close family members to allow for physical presence, along with legal and other administrative matters. Additionally, Jewish funerals are not held on Sabbath (Saturday) or other Jewish holidays.
Traditionally, individuals of the Jewish faith do not embalm a deceased or apply any type of cosmetic enhancements. In special circumstances or occasions when embalming is required by law, these instances would supersede the religious rituals. The primary reason for the simple approach to funerals and burials is consistent with the religious belief of returning a body to the earth in the same way in which it entered – clean and natural.
It is traditional and customary in the Jewish religion to be buried in the most basic all-wood casket, generally made out of pine with no handles, metal parts or liners. Consistent with the custom of not embalming a body, the deceased and the casket are laid to rest in the most natural form where the casket and body are able to decompose more rapidly becoming part of the earth. According to Jewish traditions, caskets are not intended to be decorative and only contain the body of the deceased. In many instances when a casket is adorned, the sole and exclusive marking on top of the casket is a Star of David.
Between the time of death and the time of burial, it is customary for someone to remain with the deceased the entire time. The shomer is the “watcher” who guards the body until burial. This act of watching is called “shemirah.”
A traditional Jewish practice is to perform a ritual washing to prepare the deceased for the burial. This practice is called the tahara. Men perform tahara for men and women for women. A tahara takes place in a mikvah, a ritual bath most commonly found in orthodox or conservative synagogues, or in a tahara room found in funeral homes.
The Chevra Kadisha is the volunteer burial society, often organized through the local synagogues, who help ensure that the bodies of deceased Jewish people are prepared and protected according to Jewish tradition. At the heart of their role is ensuring dignity throughout the process from the Tahara and dressing to providing the shomer to stand guard.
In Judaism, another custom stems from traditional burial clothing for a deceased called a shroud (“tachrichim”). The shroud refers to a simple, full-clothing garment made of muslin or white linen. It contains no pockets or zippers. The plain clothing is consistent with other customs for Jewish burial such as not embalming and the use of a simple wood casket. These rituals, when combined, are intended to show all people are equal. Individuals are generally in the casket dressed in the shroud, which has no pockets or pouches, with no other material possessions. In addition to the shroud, men, and in the modern context women, may also have a skullcap or kippah and a prayer shawl or talit. It is more common today depending on one’s level of observance that individuals be provided an option for modern clothing.
To symbolize grief, the immediate mourners (spouse, parents, children, or siblings of the deceased) tear a piece of their clothing. Those who lost a parent create a tear on the left side of the chest over the heart whereas other immediate mourners tear on the right side of the chest. The kriah ribbon, a simple black ribbon with a tear, can substitute for a tear in the clothing. The kriah is performed (or the ribbon is placed on the clothing) just prior to the funeral service, while the family is standing. Traditionally clothing remains torn or the ribbon is worn throughout the shiva, however not on Shabbat or festival days.
Wake Or Visitation Prior to a Jewish Funeral
Traditionally, there is no visitation or wake prior to a Jewish funeral, although families often gather together. During this time, they may talk, meet with the rabbi or a member of the clergy, or recite a prayer. Commonly the kriah, the tearing of the clothing and reciting of a prayer, occurs at this gathering, just before the funeral service begins.
Where to Hold a Jewish Funeral.
There are a few variations of where and how a Jewish funeral takes place. When a family belongs to a synagogue, it is common and appropriate for the funeral service to take place at the synagogue with a graveside burial to follow if the family chooses. In many instances, funeral services are also held in the chapel of a funeral home with an officiant, rabbi, or member of the clergy presiding and then proceeding to the cemetery. It is also common for families to have a graveside funeral and burial simultaneously. In each of these instances, the pallbearers may carry the casket into the chapel and sanctuary, and also escort the casket from the service to the gravesite.
The funeral planning process can be overwhelming for families. By having the knowledge and understanding of the rituals and customs associated with Jewish funerals, you will help ensure the process goes smoothly on all fronts.