In Judaism, all humans are equal and created in God’s image. This idea is at the foundation of Jewish funerals, and it affects how the dead are honored and remembered. Whether you’re planning a Jewish funeral or you’ve been invited to one yourself, what are the traditions, customs, and etiquette?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens During Shiva?
- What Happens During a Jewish Funeral Service?
- Jewish Funeral Etiquette
- Post-Funeral Jewish Traditions
- Frequently Asked Questions: Jewish Funerals
Taking a closer look at different funeral traditions and customs across the globe is a way to understand differing ideas about mortality. Each religion offers its own perspectives on death and the afterlife. From shivas to headstones, there are many unique traditions that go into Jewish funerals in particular. While modern funerals look different than they did hundreds of years ago, most of these practices have been passed down through generations for centuries.
In Judaism, the afterlife takes many forms. Some believe in a sense of heaven, while others believe they’ll become one with God. Ultimately, people believe they continue to live through others, in their ancestors and surviving family members. This is why remembrance plays such a strong role in Jewish faith and tradition.
What exactly do Jewish funerals look like? In this guide, we’ll dive deep into the unique traditions, customs, and etiquette associated with Jewish funerals. Understanding these important practices helps you develop your own views on mortality while also staying respectful of other cultures and religions.
What Happens During Shiva?
First, it’s impossible to talk about Jewish funerals without talking about shiva. What does it mean to sit shiva? The practice known as “sitting shiva” is a way for Jewish mourners to perform traditional rituals. Not only is shiva a sign of respect for the dead, but it also brings communities together. What exactly happens during a shiva in the Jewish faith?
To begin, shiva is a period of structured mourning. The specific time frame for shiva depends on your relationship with the deceased. The closest relatives (parents, spouse, children, etc.) grieve for up to a year. The first period of shiva (known as “sitting shiva”) begins immediately after the burial.
This mourning period lasts a total of seven days. The term “shiva” itself literally translates to “seven” in Hebrew. During these seven days, the immediate family of the deceased stays home, wears traditional mourning outfits, and receives visits from the community. Visitors offer their comfort and support, often discussing memories about the deceased.
Focus on grief
During the seven days of shiva, it’s important for the focus to be solely on the mourner’s grief. The bereaved stay home and refrain from working. They don’t participate in events, movies, parties, or any fun events.
By staying in their homes and focusing on this loss, they truly take the time to reflect on their grief. This is a highly therapeutic process, and many find it essential to move on from the pain of a loss. Certain Jewish funeral prayers are recited during the shiva to honor the dead, and the bereaved symbolically clean their hands.
Another important aspect of sitting shiva is the mourning attire. Many cultures around the globe wear special mourning clothing, and this is a practice that dates back thousands of years. In the Jewish tradition, mourners wear black like in other cultures.
One unique part of the shiva is the wearing of a torn black ribbon. This is known as a keriah, and it’s a symbol of the mourner’s heart and sadness after a loss. Some communities wear this torn ribbon near their heart. Other than this being worn during shiva, other signs of public mourning are not worn.
What Happens During a Jewish Funeral Service?
Next, what happens during a Jewish funeral service? These funeral services are similar to other mainstream funerals, and practices vary depending on the traditions of that specific family. Here are the traditions you’ll find during a Jewish funeral service.
Within 24 hours
One of the most unusual parts of the Jewish funeral is the timing. Traditionally, the body is buried within 24 hours after death. Though not always possible, this is maintained as much as possible.
The only exception is that funerals cannot take place on the Shabbat or on specific Jewish holidays. The funeral can be held at any number of locations, including at a synagogue, funeral home, cemetery, or family home.
Prayers and readings
The funeral service is a simple affair. In Judaism, it’s important to note that everyone is considered to be equal before God. Flashy, over-the-top extravagances are not included in funeral services. These are seen as disrespectful, so the funeral is typically a simple, brief affair.
During the funeral, there are prayers and readings. Some are in Hebrew, but some are also in English. This depends on the family’s wishes. Any Jewish person can lead a funeral service. A rabbi is often the officiant, but this is not required.
No music or flowers
Unlike in other traditions such as Christianity, there are no music or flowers included within the Jewish funeral service. The deceased are buried in a plain, simple casket, and there are no special adornments. Again, the focus is on simplicity and togetherness as a sign of respect.
It’s very common for traditional Jewish burials to have a graveside service. This is when friends, family, and the community gather at the grave to pay their final respects. Though this might only be for close family, it’s often a part of the funeral itself.
During the graveside service, it’s traditional for family members to take the opportunity to fill the grave with dirt. This relates to the phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Each family member takes a shovelful of dirt and drops it onto the casket, giving the family closure during this final sendoff. After the headstone has been placed, family might also leave stones on the grave as a way to honor someone’s memory.
Jewish Funeral Etiquette
Like with all traditions, it’s important for visitors and guests to be mindful of proper funeral etiquette. Doing or saying the wrong thing could unintentionally upset the family. Follow these important tips below for Jewish funeral etiquette.
Condolences are a large part of Jewish mourning traditions. However, it’s important to focus on the family during this time. While you can express sympathy, save your kind words until after the service. It’s not appropriate to approach the family before or during the memorial service.
After the service, most families return to their homes to sit shiva. During this time, you’re expected to visit and offer your sympathy and prayers. If you’re unable to visit the home, send a sympathy note.
Flowers or gifts
In many religions and traditions, it’s considered an act of kindness to send flowers to the family after a loss. This is not the case in the Jewish faith. While there are many lovely funeral flowers to choose from, it’s best not to send any to Jewish mourners.
You can’t send flowers to a Jewish funeral or shiva. In the Jewish faith, it’s believed that the lives of flowers shouldn’t be interrupted to create floral arrangements for funerals. However, there are some gifts that are appropriate. It’s a nice idea to send a condolence letter, fruit basket, meat platter, or another practical meal. Most importantly, however, is your physical presence at the funeral or shiva.
Etiquette for non-Jews
Non-Jews are typically welcome at Jewish funerals. However, it’s important to dress and behave respectfully. Both men and women should dress conservatively and as they would for any other funeral. If the funeral takes place at a synagogue, men might need to wear a yarmulke. Women might need to cover their hair for the service, depending on the family’s wishes.
During the service, guests may choose whether or not to participate in the prayers and chants. Though this is welcome, especially if you understand Hebrew, it is not required. However, conversations should be kept to a minimum to be respectful of the service. When visiting the family sitting shiva, keep all visits short. This is a time for immediate family.
Post-Funeral Jewish Traditions
Like in other faiths, the traditions and remembrance don't end after the funeral. Here are other post-funeral Jewish traditions to be aware of whether you’re a guest or supporting a loved one.
Cremation or burial
Most Jewish people choose burial vs. cremation, but there are no strict religious rules around this. When buried, Jewish people are buried in simple wooden caskets. They are not embalmed. Because all are equal in death before God, it’s important for these burials to be as simple as possible. We come into this world with nothing, and the Jewish belief is that you should leave with nothing as well.
As mentioned above, the entire family participates in the graveside service. Dirt is shoveled over the dead until the casket is no longer visible. Guests might be invited to participate in this process as well, and it’s a way to pay final respects.
Unveiling the headstone
Remembering the dead is an ongoing process in the Jewish faith. There is a traditional headstone unveiling one year after the death. This is when the family gathers again at the grave a year later to reveal the completed headstone. There is often a prayer and another short ceremony, though this is only for close friends and family.
Remembering the dead
Another way Jewish people honor the dead is through Yahrzeit. This is a Jewish word that literally means the “anniversary of a death.” On the yearly anniversary of a loved one’s death, Jewish people light a special candle at home in honor of the deceased. This is a practice that also takes place on Jewish holidays.
Frequently Asked Questions: Jewish Funerals
Last but not least, it’s normal to have questions about Jewish funerals and how they compare to other traditions. Here are common answers below so you know exactly what to expect.
How many days after death do Jewish families host a funeral?
It’s important to bury and honor the dead as soon as possible after death. Traditionally, Jewish funerals take place within 24 and 48 hours. Though exceptions are made for the Shabbat and Jewish holidays, it’s important for the dead to be buried quickly.
In modern times, because families are likely to be spread out, there might be delays in this timeline. It’s up to the family to determine exactly when to hold the funeral, and modern Jews are typically less strict.
Do Jewish funerals have a closed or open casket?
Jewish funerals are typically closed casket occasions. While some cultures really value this final opportunity to see the deceased, it’s seen as disrespectful in Judaism. Bodies aren’t to be embalmed, and the casket is rarely opened again once it’s closed.
How have Jewish funerals changed over time?
All religions and cultures change over time to meet new demands. In essence, funerals have largely remained the same for thousands of years. In ancient times, the body was typically buried without a casket. It was simply wrapped in a shroud and placed within the ground. Today, most Jewish people are buried in a traditional wooden casket.
During the shiva and once a month after, there is a collective prayer known as the minyan. This is made up of 10 adult Jews, and it's a way to honor the death of a loved one. Traditionally, these 10 adults needed to be men. However, in modern times, it’s become acceptable for more liberal practitioners to welcome women into these sacred groups. Mourning continues to adapt and change to suit the world we live in today.
Honoring the Dead in the Jewish Faith
Ultimately, the Jewish faith has clear beliefs not only for how to live but also for how to die. These traditions and practices make it easier to honor loved ones, support the bereaved, and remember the dead. They have been a part of Jewish culture for thousands of years, and they continue to be a part of the story today.
How do you honor those you love? Use our interactive post-loss checklist to stay on top of the next steps after losing a loved one. Whether you’re honoring their memory or preparing for uncertainty, you’re never alone.
- Gilad, Elon. “The History of Jewish Burial Rites.” Haaretz. Haaretz.com.
- Millgram, Abraham. “Minyan: The Congregational Quorum.” My Jewish Learning. MyJewishLearning.com.
- “Understanding Shiva.” Shiva: The Resource for Jewish Mourning. Shiva.com.