One of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of different religions is to take a closer look at funeral traditions and rituals. Jewish funeral traditions are particularly interesting, and they differ greatly from Christianity, Islam, and other religions of the world.
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One of the biggest differences when comparing Jewish funerals to other religions has to do with timing. As the saying goes, timing is everything. It’s one of the most important aspects of Jewish burial and funeral customs.
Whether you’ve been invited to a Jewish funeral service or you’re simply wondering what this process is like, we’ll break down the timing of these services and traditions.
These customs around the death of a loved one are designed to ease the psychological burden of grief and suffering after a loss. They’ve been practiced since the earliest days of Judaism, and they’re a powerful way to connect with one’s faith.
Timeline for Jewish Mourning
Many cultures around the world practice different mourning traditions. While each individual has their own feelings and reactions to the death of a loved one, these timelines help the mourner heal. In Judaism, remembrance and mourning are incredibly important.
During each phase of the mourning process, there are different expectations for the family. While modern practitioners are open to interpret this timeline on their own terms, having steps to follow can be a weight off one’s shoulders.
The timeline for Jewish mourning is as follows:
- Aninut (after death): The period right after the death of a loved one is known as aninut. Someone in this stage is called an onen. These individuals have no religious obligations. Their focus is to only be on arranging and attending the funeral. Any daily religious observances are suspended so they can focus on their initial grief.
- Funeral and returning ceremony: There are specific prayers and traditions that take place at the funeral (see below), and there’s also a returning ceremony when they go home. Family and friends of the mourning prepare what’s called a meal of consolation and there is also ritual cleaning.
- Shiva (seven days): Most people have heard about sitting shiva. Shiva refers to the first week after a funeral. This is when mourners are cared for by close friends and family, and they only focus on mourning and prayer.
- Sheloshim (a month): After the shiva, the mourners enter the stage known as sheloshim which means 30. This is a 30-day period that begins on the day of the funeral. After sitting shiva, mourners return to work but they’re still not back to “normal.” They’re to avoid parties and other public entertainment.
- Shnat ha-Evel (first year): If someone has lost a parent, they’re to participate in shnat ha-evel for the first 11 months (or an entire year) after the passing. This is when they continue mourning by reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for 11 full months. Afterward, they’re to return to “regular” life.
- Yahrzeit (death anniversary): The yearly anniversary of someone’s death is known as yahrzeit. On this day, the family lights a candle at home, which burns for 24 hours in their memory.
- Unveiling: Last but not least, there is also a mourning tradition of unveiling the tombstone once it’s placed on the grave.
There is some variation on the above depending on the individual, how they choose to practice their faith, and their relationship to the deceased. There is a lot of flexibility in modern days, but the focus is still on ensuring the mourning family has the structure and support they need to return to “normal.”
Timeline for Jewish Funeral Ceremony
In Judaism, it’s believed that the funeral is the first step to healing from grief. To delay the funeral too much would mean to delay the inevitable, and the family might spend too much time dwelling on the death.
When do Jewish funerals take place?
Jewish funerals are supposed to take place as soon after death as reasonably possible. This is usually within the first 24 hours. The funeral takes place at a synagogue, funeral home, or cemetery.
Jewish funeral ceremonies also typically happen in the morning hours. This is practical because more people are likely able to attend in the morning, and it also allows the mourning to begin their shiva process before dark.
When are Jewish funerals delayed?
There are occasions when Jewish funerals are delayed. While it’s best to avoid a long delay for the family’s sake, occasionally life gets in the way. It’s considered acceptable to wait for any of these reasons below:
- Post-mortem exam: If there needs to be a post-mortem examination for any reason, this is done before the burial and might delay the funeral.
- Casket delivery: Also, if the casket is delayed for any reason, there might be a delay in the funeral service. It’s important for the person to be laid to rest in the proper treatments, so this type of delay is common.
- Travel: Sometimes, friends and family have to travel a long distance to the funeral. Having these close friends and family present at the funeral is a way to honor the family, so it’s common to wait up to 3 days to ensure those closest to the deceased can be present.
- Rabbi: If a specific rabbi is requested for the service, it’s acceptable to wait until they’re available (within reason).
- Friday: The funeral is never to be held on a Friday afternoon since this is the start of the Sabbath. Instead, the funeral is postponed until Sunday.
- Holiday: If the individual passes on a major festival or holiday, it’s against Jewish law for someone to be buried at this time. While someone outside of the Jewish faith can hold the burial, families typically wait until the holiday ends.
While Jewish law has clear ideas about when funerals should be held, there is a lot of flexibility based on the instances above. Most importantly, the family should feel comfortable and supported during the service. It’s okay to wait if it means their needs are better met.
Timeline for Jewish Burial
The burial is an important part of Jewish funeral customs. There are also strong Jewish beliefs around cremation, namely, that cremation isn’t allowed. Burial is considered the best way to allow the body to decompose naturally. As such, no embalming is allowed, and the funeral is typically closed casket.
It’s essential that the burial take place as soon after death as possible. While this might be delayed for any of the reasons listed above, like securing the proper casket, the Torah encourages burial quickly after death.
The funeral service is often held at the graveside to speed this process even further. Otherwise, the burial might be held before the funeral service. The friends and family usually will participate in the burial process. Shovels are used to toss soil onto the casket in a symbolic practice.
Related to the Jewish burial is the unveiling. This doesn’t adhere to the specific timelines explained above. Rather, it’s left to the family’s discretion when to hold the unveiling. This can happen anytime within the first year after the death.
The unveiling is a ceremony that takes place at the graveside to unveiling the tombstone. This is when the grave marker is placed next to the burial plot to honor the deceased. The unveiling is a spiritual ceremony, and it’s typically attended by close friends and family and a rabbi.
Understanding Jewish Funeral Traditions
Timing is everything, not only in life, but also in death. After the death of someone who belongs to the Jewish faith, it’s important for friends and family to pay close attention to the timeline created by Jewish law. From planning what to bring to shiva to understanding the role of mourning, everything is explained clearly.
While people in modern days are welcome to adjust these traditions to fit their own needs, having a guideline or roadmap for grief recovery is a powerful thing. Healing after losing a loved one is no easy task. Knowing what steps to take and having a clear source of ongoing support makes all the difference in the Jewish faith.