A Guide to Jewish Death and Mourning Rituals

Judaism places great emphasis on honoring the dead and has ritualized the ceremony and the mourning rites, with only slight differences between communities.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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A mourner arrives at the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv.
A mourner arrives at the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv.Credit: AP
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Jewish religion places great emphasis on honoring the dead (kvod hamet in Hebrew). It is this honor that lies behind the Jewish tradition of burying the dead as soon as possible, often on the very day they die.

While the relatives and friends of the deceased are notified and are making their travel arrangements, the body is transferred to a Jewish funerary society, Hevra Kadisha (In Hebrew/Aramaic: “Holy Association”). These are non-profit organizations of religious Jews that, in the Diaspora, are supported by local Jewish communities. In Israel, Hevra Kadisha is financed by the government.

It is the members of Hevra Kadisha who prepare the body for burial according to Jewish rites, and dig the graves.

In the United States, liberal and pluralistic burial societies have been established in the hopes of opening up the work of Jewish burial and funerals to non-Orthodox Jews.

Preparing the body for burial

The members of the Hevra Kadisha strip the body of its clothes and cover it with a white sheet. Then they begin an initial cleansing of the body with cold water, while reciting biblical verses that mention the organ being cleaned. For example: "Thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies" (Song of Solomon 7:2).

The body is turned on its left and the back is washed as well. Then a second round of cleaning is done using a sponge and soap, accompanied by a second set of corresponding biblical verses. Once again the body is turned over on its left and the dorsal side is washed as well. Verses are not recited when the back is washed.

Now the body is cleaned from the inside, including by enema. That orifice is then plugged with some linen. Once this is done, any dirt under the nails is cleared and the body is taken to a special shower, where it is propped up and about 30 liters of water are poured over it. The body is laid down again, dried, and the hair is combed.

At this point, the body is wrapped in shrouds, and is ready for interment.

Greeting mourners

When greeting a Jew in mourning, the tradition is to say “May you suffer no more,” “May the place console you” (an ancient rabbinic phrase of obscure origin), or simply “my condolences."

The Jewish funeral

Funerals in Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions differ somewhat, but in general the tradition is to have loved ones eulogize the departed, at a gathering before the funeral or at the grave itself. There and then, Ashkenazi Jews will tear their shirts, an ancient sign of grief (some symbolically tear a ribbon fastened to the shirt). Sephardim only rend their clothing at the end of the funeral.

At the gravesite, a portion of the Mishnah is read (Avot 3:1) and psalms and other biblical passages are recited. The son of the deceased or another person recite the Kaddish, an ancient prayer in Aramaic exalting God.

In most Jewish communities, the body is lowered into the grave in the shroud. In North America and Western Europe a simple wood casket is more commonly used.

Then the body is covered with soil. It is traditional for all to participate, throwing a small amount of dirt over the body. The grave is then usually filled in properly by the Hevra Kadisha attendant. A few more psalms, benedictions and verses are read and the funeral is over. It is common for participants to lay flowers or wreaths at the grave, and Israeli archaeologists have even recently discovered that bringing flowers to funerals is an ancient custom.

The shiva

The funeral is followed by a seven-day mourning period called the shiva (Hebrew for "seven").

Usually the immediate family spends the shiva together, at the family home or elsewhere.

During this week, the immediate family is supposed to observe certain mourning rites.

The mirrors are covered as a sign of rejection of vanity. The family traditionally sits in low seats, as another mark of mourning. They are also supposed to continue to wear torn clothing, and to avoid shaving, wearing leather shoes, working, studying Torah, and sex.

Family, friends, co-workers and neighbors come to console the bereaved, and customarily bring food for the family, to spare them the burden of cooking, and to share memories of the departed.

After the shiva, the family returns to the grave and recites psalms, the Kaddish and a prayer praising God for his mercifulness (El Maleh Rachamim).

The Shloshim

Following the seven-day shiva, a 23-day-long mourning period called the shloshim begins. Shloshim is simply Hebrew for the number 30 – that is how many days have now passed since the funeral.

The mourning symbols during the shloshim are confined to refraining from shaving and haircuts.

On the last day, that is, 30 days after the funeral, the family goes back to the grave. Several psalms, the Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim are recited. Some people eulogize the dead.

In some communities, including Israel, this is when the gravestone is revealed.

When Jews visit a grave, it is traditional to place a small rock on or by the gravestone as a sign of respect.

Yahrzeit, 'anniversary' in Yiddish

Children who lost a parent are supposed to observe certain mourning rites for 11 months. These include a special Kaddish prayer in the daily prayer service, refraining from moving to a new home, or going to concerts or other joyous occasions, such as weddings. Nor do mourners buy new clothes during that time.

Traditionally, the reason only 11 months are required - not a full year - is that mourning a parent for the whole year is tantamount to admitting that the parent was fully evil and required that much pleading on his behalf for him (or her) to achieve a place in heaven, or some other form of afterlife.

On the first anniversary of the funeral - according to the Hebrew calendar - the family visits the grave again. If the gravestone wasn’t revealed before, it is now.

During this visit the same psalms, prayers and benedictions are recited, and stones are left on the gravestone. This is repeated every year.

Some people also light a yahrzeit candle, which burns for 24 hours, and signals that the memory of the deceased is still alive.

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