Choosing A Cemetery
Judaism imbues everyday physical items with holiness. The treated hide of a cow becomes parchment for a Torah. Cylinders of wax and wick fibers glow with the light of Shabbat. A span of cloth held high becomes a Chuppa.” If animal skins, candles, and cloth can become holy, then the Jewish body absorbs mega-fold of holiness throughout a lifetime. A Jewish body, created in the image of God, thus deserves burial in a place specifically hallowed for it – the Jewish cemetery.
The best choice is a separate Jewish cemetery. When this is not available, then burial may take place near a non-Jewish cemetery in a section separated by a fence or shrub. Land used for any Jewish burial should be consecrated for that purpose.
Timing of Burial
The two themes of a Jewish approach to death and mourning: nihum avelim - comforting the mourner and k’vod ha-met – honoring the dead converge with the Jewish preference for a timely burial.
Mourning customs and the shiva mourning period may only begin after the interment. Since shiva brings comfort to the mourners, the burial is held as soon as possible. Undue haste is not necessary. Family should have time to gather. Usually the burial is held within two or three days and rarely on Jewish holidays and not on Shabbat.
To delay a burial keeps the physical shell of a person among those who are living, eating, and loving; pleasures no longer available to one who has died. A lifeless body discolors and begins to decompose -- a state that repulses, that does not command the respect and loving treatment the deceased deserves.
The Torah argues for the rights of hanged criminals to be buried before nightfall. Reasoning that the average person deserves at least as much respect as the most heinous lawbreaker, the sages created the Jewish tradition of not delaying burial.
Usually a burial will take place within one or two days after death. There should be time to obtain shrouds and a proper casket and to allow relatives and friends to gather. Going beyond three days is considered ha-lanat ha-met, literally delaying the dead. This should be avoided.
Burials do not take place on Shabbat or on major Jewish holidays.
The funeral and mourning process call for rabbis to act in the truest definition of their title: rabbi as teacher. A rabbi can act as a guide to the mourning customs, which are numerous and sometimes confusing. If you or your family wish to participate in the funeral, inform the rabbi in advance.
What to Tell the Rabbi
To prepare the rabbi for the eulogy, take a moment to get your thoughts in order and jot them down. Recall good qualities, family relationships, and jobs. Describe notable accomplishments and memberships in civic, political, and volunteer organizations. Include educational background and the deceased’s relationship with Judaism. What was meaningful to him? What did you learn from her?
The greatest truths about a person come through in the small, everyday ways a life was lived. The silly birthday cards he sent deserve mention, not just the huge heroic deeds Find special moments: a memory of Israel, a quip at a bar mitzvah. Specifics will keep platitudes and exaggeration in check.
Clue the rabbi in to any particular hatred of religion or in family life so the rabbi can paint a true picture. (A divorce, for example, so the rabbi doesn’t mention love for the children’s mother, if he spent years in court with her instead.) The more heartfelt the description, the more it will echo Abraham who “wept and praised” his wife Sarah in the first Jewish eulogy, according to the medieval legends of the Midrash.
Prayers at the funeral will include mention of Hebrew names. The rabbi will probably ask for the Hebrew name of the deceased and her parents.
Where to Find A Rabbi
Hospital chaplains, hospice workers, and retirement home directors often know of rabbis who are available for funerals.
A rabbi who is a Kohen, a descendant of the priestly class, is likely to turn down invitations to officiate at funerals or unveilings. Descendants of the Kohen class avoid contact with the dead in hopes of retaining a degree of spiritual purity that would enable them to serve in the Holy Temple should it be rebuilt.
Jewish Casket ChoicesSimple Kosher Samples
A gleaming casket is not the mark of or payback for a life well lived. Simple wooden caskets, the least expensive “kosher” casket (as funeral directors call them), are the traditional Jewish choice. These caskets are fashioned completely of wood with wooden pegs in place of nails. In days gone by the wood was left unpolished.
Wood, a natural material, decomposes quicker than steel or bronze, speeding the return to the earth. Some families instruct the casket dealer to drill holes into the casket bottom to hasten the process.
A simple wooden coffin is substantially less expensive than the models with lining, padding and regal finishes. Many Jewish traditions are aimed at keeping the distinction between rich and poor at a minimum to spare poor families from feeling shame that they cannot afford a lavish sendoff. Better for the money to be spent on charity, where the memory of a loved one will live on, instead of purchasing a high-end casket.
Israeli Casket Customs
Israeli burial authorities, who are Orthodox, forgo caskets and bury men wrapped in a tallit prayer shawl and women in a special cloth. Sometimes reed mats are placed on the floor of the grave. Burial practice on a secular kibbutz may vary.
Placing items in the Casket
The words not said in life can be said through a note enclosed in the casket. Other personal items: a favorite book, a poem, an artist’s palette, for example, are sometimes place inside. A long-standing custom of enclosing a bag of soil from Israel is yet another reminder of “to dust you shall return” and a symbol of the Jewish People’s attachment to the Promised Land.
Worn Torah scrolls, pairs of tefillin, and mezuzahs that are no longer fit for use are sometimes buried alongside righteous people.
Writing A Eulogy
Moving eulogies spill from the hearts of those who knew the person best. Warm, funny memories and laughter have their place in a eulogy. Overstating or attributing positive qualities to someone who didn’t possess them do not.
To prepare for the eulogy, take a moment to get your thoughts in order and jot them down. Recall good qualities, family relationships and jobs. Describe notable accomplishments and memberships in civic, political, and volunteer organizations. Include educational background and the deceased’s relationship with Judaism. What was meaningful to him? What did you learn from her?
The greatest truths about a person frequently come through in the small, everyday ways a life was lived. The silly birthday cards he sent deserve mention, not just the huge heroic deeds. Find special moments: a memory of Israel, a quip at a bar mitzvah, a particularly fruitless fishing trip. Specifics will keep platitudes and exaggeration in check.
The more heartfelt the description, the more it will echo Abraham who “wept and praised” his wife Sarah in the first Jewish eulogy.
Flower Free Funerals Why Flowers Are Not Part of the Jewish Funeral Tradition
Fragrant blooms, which became associated with pagan death rites, were used to camouflage the scent of decay – an unnecessary measure for timely Jewish burials. Modern post-mortem practices have eliminated the need for covering up odor. Flowers, while not part of the Jewish tradition, should be gracefully accepted and displayed so as not to offend. Some Jewish funeral homes will only allow flowers in the outer rooms of the chapel. If you want flowers at the service, be sure to ask about the funeral home policy before choosing that location.
The anti-flower stance has not carried over to the modern State of Israel. Flowers are common at cemeteries, especially at soldier’s graves.
Graveside PlantingUniform grave markers and plantings help to blur the distinction between rich and poor at the cemetery. Plantings should keep within the general custom of the cemetery, and their upkeep should not place a burden on the survivors.
The Funeral ServiceWhere to Hold the Service
No specific place is hallowed exclusively for the funeral service. It may take place at home, in a funeral home, at a cemetery chapel, by the gravesite, or in the synagogue if the ritual committee allows for it.
Viewing the Body
Contrary to popular norms, Jewish thought does not consider it honorable to have an open coffin for visitors to pay their respects. The preparation a body must undergo to be fit for viewing: painting on makeup and positioning the body so it looks lifelike are considered to be less than dignified treatment. Accepting the reality of death is a step along the mourning journey, one harder to take if the deceased appears to just be asleep.
The body may be viewed to ensure that the right remains are at the funeral.
After the family and other mourners have gathered, the family will take their seats in the front row and the service will begin. Although there is no official liturgy written for a funeral, some prayers have become customary.
Rabbis tend to open the service with a welcome and some psalms. Psalms 15, 23, 24, 49 and 90 speak of God as a protector and guide and of the closeness with God that comes as a reward for a good life. Readings from Jewish sources, poetry, and passages from books personalize the service.
The El Maleh Rahamim “God is filled with mercy” memorial prayer is often chanted to close the funeral. Chanted in Hebrew and sometimes English while the congregation stands, El Maleh Rahamim asks God to care for the soul under sheltering wings of peace.
Traditional Jewish funerals have no background music. The Jewish traditions of simple funeral arrangements and the Jewish tradition that mourners refrain from listening to music keep the organ hushed, the cellos silent. But what if music played a large role in the life of the one you are mourning? Speak with the rabbi. Music and song have been making inroads into Jewish funeral practices.
As the service ends, the rabbi closes by sharing the shiva information, where the shiva will be held and if a minyan is needed for services in the home. The casket will be wheeled from the room accompanied by the rabbi and the pallbearers. The family follows close behind.
Once the gravesite is reached, the mourners form a procession. Joining a funeral procession is an act of kindness, a mitzvah that is said to bring reward in this world and the next.
Several times along the way, the rabbi may halt the procession. Pallbearers may be exchanged at this time, but the custom recalls the seven times the word “vanity” appears in Ecclesiastes. With evidence of life’s finite span so plainly before the mourners, the momentary stops remind them to time wisely.
Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern-European descent customarily accompany the deceased to the cemetery and remain graveside until the coffin is lowered into the grave.
For Syrian Jews who are burying their mother, the sons form the procession, while their father stays behind.
In Morocco, women traditionally did not go to the cemetery. Jewish women of Moroccan descent broke with this practice.
Until recently, women in Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans would not go to the burial. At times, fathers would not attend their child’s interment.
Women of Spanish-Portuguese heritage have recently begun going the gravesite.
Close male relatives are the traditional choice for pallbearers. Women and friends now take their places alongside the casket. Traditional interpretations of Jewish law dictate that Jews alone accept this honor.