The History of Jewish Burial Rites

Jews have been dying ever since there were Jews, but how they are buried has vastly changed through the millennia.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

On the occasion of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, let us take a look at the subject of Jewish burial and its history. But before peering into the past, let’s take a short look at the present.

Modern Jews bury their loved ones in cemeteries. In Israel, the body is usually lowered into the ground wrapped in a shroud, but without a coffin. An exception is made when the deceased are Israeli soldiers, who are also buried wrapped in a shroud, but inside a simple wooden casket.

In the rest of the world, use of caskets varies by community, but is generally rare – especially in Eastern Europe and the Arab world. In the West, coffins have become the norm, possibly an adoption by the Jews from their Gentile neighbors.

This modern custom of using a shroud, or coffin, and interring the body in a cemetery is very different from the practices of yore.

Ancient burial caves

An ancient burial cave, dating from the 5th century BCE, smack by one of Israel's busiest traffic arteries, the Ayalon Highway.Credit: Moshe Gilad

From the archaeological record, we know that the burial practices of the earliest Jews, the Israelites and the Judahites (who would unite into the people called yehudim, or the Jews), usually interred their dead in "family caves" located outside the settlement.

These "family caves" were usually created by expanding naturally-occurring tunnels in the chalky foothills of the region.

The burial rite consisted of two parts. First the body would be brought into an outer room and laid on the floor, or in special slots in the wall. Then later, perhaps a year later, the family would return to the burial cave, collect the bare bones and add them to a pile of bones left by previous generations in an inner sanctum.

This ancient custom continued even after the invasion of their kingdoms in the eighth and sixth centuries BCE, persisted during and after the exile, throughout during the Second Temple period – lasting, in fact, until the Middle Ages. During those millennia, though, some innovations did develop.

Ossuaries - small boxes that held the bones of the dead after the flesh had decayed, began to gain popularity in the Hellenistic period (the first three centuries BCE). After the destruction of the Second Temple, with the land under Roman rule, Roman-style coffins and sarcophagi also gradually began to gain popularity.

We are told that Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah and arguably the most important rabbi in Jewish history, was buried in a coffin when he died in the third century CE - though it had holes in its bottom.

By the first centuries of the Common Era, under the influence of Greek and Roman culture, Jewish burial had become a costly affair, with increasingly extravagant spending on adornment of the dead and on their resting place. The rabbis however viewed this practice as an ostentatious foreign influence and rejected it. Again Rabbi Judah was an example – he asked to be buried in common linen.

The rise of mutual burial societies

In the Talmudic times that came after the death of Judah, the responsibility for burial gradually shifted from the family of the deceased to the community - more particularly, to mutual burial societies.

The Talmud only hints at this in Moed Katan 26b, where we are told that Rabbi Hamnuna was visiting a town - and was surprised to see that after a death was announced, the townspeople went on working, rather than tending to the burial. He inquired into this and was told there was a society (“Chevrah”) for that. Rabbi Hamnuna concluded that the people could indeed continue working.

By the time late antiquity had given way to the Middle Ages - by the seventh century - burial in family caves or tunnels had ceased to exist, and community cemeteries took their place as the final resting place of departed Jews. These cemeteries were looked after by the community, and were usually tended by a voluntary Jewish burial group.

At first these "societies" were mere pacts among a given group of Jews to bury one another when any of the members died. As time went by, these evolved and became institutionalized as non-profit organizations, with the express purpose of providing all local Jews, not only members, with a proper burial according to Jewish law.

The earliest of these organized organizations on record, Chevra Kadisha, was incorporated in Prague in 1564.

A great honor to bury the dead

Becoming a member of these Chevra Kadisha was considered a great honor. Only the most prominent members of the community were initiated, or rather their children were, as usually initiates were children. Only members of the most prominent families of the community were admitted to these societies, often only in return for a sizable donation.

Members of the group would at first learn the art by watching, then work as apprentices. Only when they were older and more experienced would they be allowed, in addition to their actual jobs, to wash bodies, dig graves, and help instruct families in the proper rules for mourning. Sir Moses Montefiore, the great 19th century Jewish financier and philanthropist, was a proud member of London’s Sephardic Chevra Kadisha and carried out his task assiduously, while in parallel running a banking empire.

However, this aura of dignity surrounding the Chevra Kadisha all but disappeared in the 20th century, with the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry.

Chevra Kadisha still exist, but are no longer organizations of volunteers. Today's organizations are non-profit organizations run by and employing ultra-Orthodox burial professionals.

In the Diaspora, Chevra Kadisha are usually supported by local Jewish communities. In Israel, the 199 Chevra Kadisha are usually a branch of a municipality, or are a private organization affiliated with a specific religious organization or groups.

The members of the Chevra Kadisha help the bereaved families prepare for the funeral by washing the body, wrapping it in a shroud or placing it in a coffin, and digging the grave. They then help the family conduct the funeral ceremony in keeping with Jewish law, and at the appropriate time – usually 30 days after the funeral - help put up the tombstone.

Jewish law gives much leeway as to the specifics of the tombstone, the text that is written, and the language. Even the artwork engraved on it, if any, is left open to the family of the departed.

After the funeral ends, the family of the deceased enter a week-long mourning period called the Shiva – from the Hebrew word for “seven,” because it lasts seven days (except between sundown Friday to sundown Saturday when mourning is prohibited). During this week, the family stays at home, convening together in grief, and family and friends customarily visit and pay their respects.

During shiva, it is customary for the bereaved family wears torn clothes, or a torn sash in some communities. In addition, it is customary for the immediate family to sit in low seats. It is also customary for visitors to bring food to a family sitting shiva.

After the shiva, the family may return to normal routine – but mourning continues until 30 days after the funeral. At that time, the family visits the grave and often the gravestone is revealed at this point, which is called the Sheloshim (Hebrew for 30).

Some mourning practices continue for an additional 11 months, in case of a close relative. These include avoiding happy events (such as parties), and in the case of men, shaving.

After the year is over, family and friends visit the grave again (in some communities this is when the gravestone is unveiled). This visit has become known as the Yahrtzeit – Yiddish for “time of year,” and is when the official mourning period ends. It is customary to visit the grave on that date every year.

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