Jewish funerals in the UK: customs, traditions, and rites.
What are Jewish funerals like in the UK?
Jewish funerals are often relatively traditional events, based closely on customs and directives of the Torah (the compilation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). You’ll find variations depending on if the deceased was an Orthodox Jew, or if they followed Liberal or Reform Judaism.
In Jewish funeral custom, the casket is closed and there is no viewing of the deceased. The funeral service will normally be a mixture of prayers and eulogies read by loved ones. After the service, a burial takes place, usually in a plot within a Jewish Cemetery. Mourners then wash their hands with water and may attend a shiva, most often held at the family home.
How to plan a Jewish funeral in the UK
At Fenix, we have many years’ experience working with Rabbis and Chevra kadishas across the UK. Our personal advisers can help you plan every aspect of a funeral, from a full service to just some elements.
No matter what you need, we always offer you the best combination of peace of mind and expertise, and our fees are always 100% transparent. We also offer smart digital tools that can help you connect with and get help from friends and family during the planning process. Whatever you need, feel free to get in touch with us – with absolutely no obligation or commitment.
How soon does a Jewish funeral take place?
Jewish tradition suggests that a body should be buried as soon as possible after death, even within 24 hours. Most Jewish people make plans before they die, often with the help of their local rabbi, funeral home, or community members, which can speed up the process. The time can be extended though, to take into account travel arrangements, legal, or other issues.
Jewish tradition does not allow funerals to be held on the Sabbath or on holy days, so this may also delay the funeral date. If the family chooses to honour the Jewish funeral rite and bury their loved one within 24 hours, they can have a memorial service at a later date to allow more people to attend.
Can Jews be cremated, embalmed, or donate organs in the UK?
The more traditional Orthodox Jewish community does not allow cremation, as they value the deceased body’s burial into the Earth. Only Reform Judaism accepts cremation as a burial practice, and it is growing ever more common within the faith.
Organ donation with the intention of preserving human life (pikuach nefesh) is commonly permitted in the UK. However, even if the deceased’s wishes are known, family members will often consult with local and respected experts in Jewish law and tradition before deciding on organ donation.
Jewish funeral customs specify that the body should be respectfully washed but not embalmed. This ritual washing is known as Tahara. In general, it’s preferred that the body is as undisturbed as possible when it’s buried.
What Happens at a Jewish Funeral Service?
While rites and customs will vary between different groups within the Jewish faith, the basic outline of a Jewish funeral service is usually as follows:
- Mourners gather: traditionally, the immediate family members stay together before the funeral and do not mingle with other guests until after the burial.
- Keriah: a torn black ribbon is pinned on the mourners by the rabbi, as a symbol of their grief. (At an Orthodox funeral a black garment they are wearing will be torn.)
- The procession of the mourners: once all the guests are seated, the mourners will enter the schul and be seated in the front rows.
- Prayers are recited.
- A eulogy is delivered in memory of the deceased.
- Family members leave the schul after the “El Malei Rachamim” is recited.
- The casket is then carried out by pallbearers and the funeral procession moves to the cemetery for burial.
Etiquette and what to wear at a Jewish funeral in the UK
If you’ve never attended a Jewish funeral, it can be useful to understand some basic rules and codes of behaviour. These include:
- Always arrive early, as a Jewish funeral should start at the time stated on the invite.
- Do not approach and greet the main group of mourners – although if you are greeted by the family it is appropriate to offer condolences.
- Talk gently – a Jewish funeral is generally not seen as an opportunity to socialise.
It’s traditional to wear black, modest and formal clothing to a Jewish funeral. Women should wear modest long dresses or skirts, or a formal pants suit. Men should wear a dark suit and a yarmulke to cover their heads (a sign of respect) – these will be available for you at the service to use.
It’s rare to see flowers or hear music at Jewish funerals – and phones, cameras and other types of recording equipment are usually not permitted.
What happens after a Jewish funeral?
Following burial, there is often a reception either at the synagogue, or the private house of a family member or loved one of the deceased. You might see mirrors covered in the house – which is a long-held tradition, indicating focus on and respect for the deceased. Following the funeral is shiva.
What does shiva mean?
Shiva is the Hebrew word for ‘seven’, as this mourning period lasts seven days. After the funeral, the closest family members will sit shiva to mourn for the passing of their loved one. During this period:
- Mourners stay at home, and refrain from working or school.
- Mourners sit on low stools or cushions, to symbolise their loss.
- A yahrzeit memorial candle is kept lit for the whole period.
- The doors of the house are left unlocked, allowing friends to visit, pay their respects, and bring food.
- Three prayer sessions are held each day, with a shiva ‘minyan’ (ten adult Jews) leading the prayer.