Jewish Funerals: Burial, Prayers and the Etiquette of Shiva

The rituals of Judaism keep burials simple and dignified, with respect for the deceased and the family.

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Judaism offers very detailed instructions to guide its followers when they are faced with the death of a family member.

The rituals that accompany the period immediately after death, through burial and during the weeks and months that follow, seem to have been designed to minimize the number of decisions that need to be made and, more significantly - to help the mourner come to terms with the loss before making a gradual return to normal life. Even then, annual rituals allow the family and others to keep the memory of the absent relation alive.

Burial is supposed to take place as soon as possible after death, generally within one or two days. Nonetheless, the funeral can not take place on Shabbat or a holiday, and, in consultation with a rabbi, it can also be postponed to make it possible for out-of-town family members to be present.

The body of the deceased is supposed to be treated with the utmost respect.

From the moment of death until interment, it is not to be left alone. During that time, the body is carefully washed, in a process called tahara, meaning “purification,” and prepared for burial. Embalming is prohibited under Jewish law as the body must be interred intact, to the extent this is possible. Even blood that is drained from it is to be buried with it.

Most Jewish communities have a hevra kadisha – the Aramaic term for a burial society. Its members not only prepare the body for burial, but also sit with it, usually reading Psalms in its presence, until the funeral.

Autopsies are permitted, but not encouraged; organ donation is also permitted. Jewish law does not allow for cremation.

Burial is meant to be simple, which has the effect of preventing a funeral from turning into a show of wealth.

When the body is ready, members of the hevra kadisha will clothe it in a plain shroud, which in the case of a man, is then draped with his tallit (prayer shawl).

In Israel, coffins are not used. Caskets are standard in the Diaspora though, and are often required by local law.

Where caskets are employed, tradition dictates the use of a plain wooden one, with no metal pieces. The box should have holes drilled in its bottom, to allow soil to enter and decomposition to take place, in accordance with the verse in Genesis 3 that says “unto dust shalt you return.” Jewish funerals proceed with a closed casket, and no public viewing.

The actual funeral can take place graveside, or in a synagogue or funeral home, for example, with mourners then accompanying the body to the cemetery. Eulogies are permitted, the prayer El Malei Rahamim (“O God full of mercy”) is recited, and official mourners (spouse, children, parents, siblings) will also say the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer, just as they will rip a piece of their clothing, a “rending” practice that has its roots in the Bible. When Jacob thought that his son Joseph was dead, for example, he “he rent his garments” (Genesis 37:34), and when King David learned that Saul and Jonathan had died, he too “took hold on his clothes, and rent them” (II Samuel 1:11).

Do Jews believe in the afterlife?

El Malei Rahamim asks God to speed the “ascent” of the deceased’s soul, which raises the question of whether Judaism believes in an afterlife.

The answer is that there’s no clear Jewish doctrine on this, though there are many references in the Talmud and other sources to “the world to come.” There is also a well-established tradition that righteous souls will be resurrected when the Messiah arrives, and the kabbalistic tradition speaks about reincarnation.

The bottom line, however, is that Judaism is largely focused on the here-and-now. For instance observance of the commandments is for their own sake, not in order to secure a putative place in paradise.

The shiva

The period of mourning that follows the funeral is divided into the first week (called the shiva, Hebrew for “seven”), the first month (shloshim, Hebrew for 30), and, in the case of a child mourning a parent, the first year.

During the shiva, the mourner remains at home, and is visited there by friends and family. He “afflicts” himself: He doesn’t bathe or shave, doesn’t venture out, even to pray – daily prayers are, rather, held in the house of morning – and sits on a stool close to the ground.

These are the traditional observances, but individuals, in part depending on the denomination with which they identify, follow these customs to varying degrees.

Visitors should not speak to the mourner unless the mourner speaks to them, and their job is not to divert the mourner’s thoughts from the deceased, but rather to encourage him or her to discuss the one who has died. The period of the shiva has a lot of emotional intensity, and is meant to give the mourner a chance to undergo catharsis.

The restrictions lessen during the weeks following the shiva, and additionally in the months following the shloshim. Children who are responsible for saying the Mourner’s Kaddish for a parent do this through the end of the 11th month. (Among the Orthodox, this obligation falls only on males; in other denominations, both daughters and sons will say Kaddish.)

The other observances extend through the end of the entire year, after which the annual anniversary (the Yahrzeit, in Yiddish) of the date of death is observed with recitation of the Kaddish and a visit to the grave. Depending on the community, the tombstone will be unveiled either a month after death, or on the first Yahrzeit.

Burial cave at Beit She'arayim, Israel, from the Mishnaic period.Credit: Tomer Neuberg
A multi-tiered "saturated" burial ground in Haifa.Credit: Moti Milrod

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