If you are planning or attending a Jewish funeral, this guide helps you understand Jewish funeral rites, etiquette, traditions and Jewish burial customs.
Jewish Funeral & Jewish Burial UK: 10 Things to Know Before Organising or Attending
If you have never organised or attended a Jewish funeral or Jewish Burial before, you might not know what to expect. This simple guide breaks down the 10 key aspects of a Jewish Funeral Ceremony; the Jewish funeral rites, the basic funeral service order, mourner etiquette and other Jewish burial customs.
What Happens After Death in Judaism?
When a Jewish person passes away, it is important for a funeral to be held within three days. A Jewish funeral is conducted by a Rabbi and usually held at a synagogue (also known as a “schul”). Sometimes Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home. The casket should be a simple wooden coffin and it is usually present for the ceremony.
In Jewish funeral custom, the casket is closed and there is no viewing of the deceased. The funeral service consists of prayers and eulogies read by loved ones. After the service, there is a traditional Jewish Burial, usually in a plot within a Jewish Cemetery. After the burial service, mourners wash their hands with water and they may attend a shiva, which is usually held at the family home.
How Do You Plan a Jewish Funeral?
Before holding a Jewish funeral, a period of time must pass that is known as “aninut”. This is when the family will notify friends of the passing, plan the funeral service and prepare their loved-one for a Jewish burial. As this can a stressful time, and it may help to engage a funeral home, or a Chevra Kadisha, to manage the preparations. A Chevra Kadisha is a Jewish burial society that prepares the body for burial.
Basics steps to follow when arranging a Jewish funeral:
- check if the deceased had any wishes, or pre-paid plans pertaining to their funeral
- appoint a Chevra Kadisha or Funeral Director to take care of the deceased
- inform your local Synagogue and Rabbi of your funeral plan
- arrange a date for the funeral and the Jewish burial
- choose a burial plot in a Jewish cemetery, preferably close to deceased family members
- plan the order of service and eulogies together with your chosen Rabbi
- prepare a handout for the details of the home where shiva will be observed
- arrange for a traditional Meal of Consolation for after the funeral
When should a Jewish funeral take place?
A Jewish funeral should take place within 24 hours, if possible. The funeral may be delayed by a day or two if family and friends have to travel far to attend. Jewish traditions do not allow funerals to be held on the Sabbath or on Jewish holy days, so this may also delay the funeral date. If the family choose 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.
What Happens Before a Jewish Funeral?
After death, the deceased’s body should not be left alone. A family member or friend will normally sit with the body until the undertaker has come to collect and transport it to the funeral home or Chevra Kadisha. Jewish funeral customs specify that the body should be respectfully washed but not embalmed. This ritual washing is known as “Tahara”.
Once cleaned, the body is wrapped in a white shroud and placed in a simple wooden coffin. Often a prayer shawl, or “Tallit”, with one corner fringe cut, will be placed with the deceased. Jewish burial customs dictate that the body should always be guarded or watched, up until burial. Your chosen funeral director should be able to organise this.
What kind of casket can be used at a Jewish funeral?
A Jewish person should be buried in a simple wooden coffin that is completely biodegradable. A kosher casket is made purely of wood, without even metal screws or nails. At a Jewish ceremony, the casket can be present, but it will never be open.
Can a Jewish person be embalmed?
Embalming is seen as a form of mutilation to the body, and as such it is not accepted within Jewish funeral rites. A Jewish burial should take place as soon as possible after death, and the deceased’s body should be allowed to decompose naturally.
In certain cases embalming or sealing the coffin might be a necessity:
- if a Jewish person dies overseas and the body needs to be repatriated
- if there is a danger to public health such as an epidemic or infectious disease
An autopsy can be carried out if the law requires, or if it can help others suffering the same condition.
What are the Jewish Funeral Traditions?
There are four main groups within the Jewish faith: Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform. Each has slightly different traditions and funeral service orders. However, the basic Jewish funeral rites include:
- the body is washed in a ritual known as Tahara
- the casket is a simple wooden coffin
- the body is wrapped in a white shroud, and sometimes buried with a prayer shawl
- the body is guarded and watched from death until after a Jewish burial
- the garments of close family members are torn, or a torn black ribbon is pinned onto their clothes by the Rabbi, as a symbol of their loss
- the deceased is buried in a Jewish cemetery after a Jewish funeral service
- only Reform Jews accept cremation as a burial practice
What Happens at a Jewish Funeral Service?
The basic outline of a Jewish Funeral Service is as follows:
- gathering of the mourners: traditionally the immediate family members stay together before the funeral and do not mingle with other guests until after the burial
- keriah: the mourners have a black ribbon pinned on their clothes by the rabbi, which is torn as a symbol of their grief
- at an Orthodox funeral a black garment they are wearing will be torn
- procession of the mourners: once all the guests are seated, the mourners will enter the schul and be seated in the front rows
- initial 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 carried out by pallbearers who have been honoured with this responsibility
- the funeral procession moves to the cemetery for burial
What is the Etiquette at a Jewish Funeral?
If you’re attending a Jewish ceremony for the first time, some basic rules include:
- always arrive early, as a Jewish Funeral should start on time
- do not greet the mourners, although if you are greeted by the family it is appropriate to offer condolences
- talk softly, as a Jewish funeral should not be seen as an opportunity to socialise
What to wear to a Jewish funeral:
It is 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 as a sign of respect. Immediate family wears a garment that is to be torn as a symbol of their loss and grief. Sometimes a black ribbon is pinned to their clothes, and torn by the Rabbi. This Jewish funeral custom of tearing a ribbon or garment is known as “kriah”.
What to bring to a Jewish funeral:
It is not acceptable to bring flowers to a Jewish funeral. There may be a chosen charity that you can donate to, in lieu of gifts or flowers. If you attend the shiva house, it is appropriate to bring gifts of food for the family in mourning.
What Happens After the Funeral, at a Jewish Burial?
After a Jewish funeral service, the casket is brought to the cemetery where the deceased is laid to rest. Prayers may be said and the coffin is lowered into the ground. The Kaddish (a prayer) may be recited by the mourning family for the first time. This is a prayer exalting G-d, which was traditionally recited every day for 11 months after a Jewish funeral.
It is common for attendees to participate in a Jewish burial by placing shovels of soil onto the lowered casket. In some cases, the back of the shovel is used for digging. This can signify the difficult task of burying a loved one. The funeral guests show support both to the deceased and to the mourning family by being present at the graveside for the final burial.
What is Shiva?
After the funeral, the closest family members will sit shiva to mourn for the passing of their spouse, parent, child or sibling. Shiva is the Hebrew word for “seven” and this Jewish mourning period usually lasts seven days.
In this time:
- mourners stay at home and refrain from working or doing school work
- mourners sit on low stools or cushions to symbolise their loss
- a Yahrzeit memorial candle is kept lit for the period of a week
- the doors are left unlocked to allow friends to visit and bring food for the mourners
- three prayer sessions are held each day with a shiva “minyan” (ten adult Jews) leading the prayer
In Jewish funeral customs, visitors to the shiva house bring food as a gift. They should not engage the mourners in conversation or tire them in any way. If the mourners reach out to a visitor, naturally that visitor can offer comfort and support.
What are the Jewish Mourning Customs regarding Grief and Bereavement?
In the Jewish funeral tradition, close family members will have specific responsibilities and restrictions placed on them for the period of mourning. These mourners are usually the spouse, children, parents or siblings of the deceased, known as “Avelim”.
The mourning timeline follows specific periods:
- aninut – the period of time from death until burial
- returning from cemetery – after the burial, mourners will eat a meal of consolation prepared by family members and friends
- shiva – the seven days of mourning after the burial
- sheloshim: thirty days from the date of burial (including the week of shiva) – in this period, the mourners may return to work or school, but it is not appropriate to attend celebrations like parties or concerts etc
- unveiling – the gravestone or monument to the deceased is usually placed 11 months after death, along with a brief uncovering ceremony
- yahrzeit – this is the one-year anniversary of the loved one’s death, which is usually observed at home by lighting a candle and reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish
At Fenix Funeral Directors, we have many years of experience working with Rabbis and Chevra Kadishas across the UK. Please speak to us (insert hyperlink) about arranging a Jewish funeral or burial, so that we can ease this time for you and your family.