While most Jewish funeral traditions are the same around the world, there are some variations depending on the heritage. For the purpose of this guide, we’ll cover the traditions, etiquette and service that are common in all Jewish funerals.
What is a Jewish funeral?
Judaism does not define a specific afterlife. Instead, Jewish people believe in the World to Come and consider leading an admirable life, lived according to Jewish laws, will help the soul after death. Instead of helping the soul pass into the hands of God during the funeral, a Jewish funeral is meant to protect the body and dignity of the deceased. For example, there is no public viewing of the body.
Jewish funeral traditions
Before the funeral
Immediately after death, a group called the Chevra Kadisha, known as the Jewish Sacred Burial Society, oversees the process of preparing the body for burial. According to Jewish funeral traditions, they stay with the body until burial to ensure it’s protected and prepared appropriately.
To prepare the body for burial, it’s washed, purified and dressed in a plain white shroud of linen or muslin. According to Jewish law, embalming is prohibited. Once the body is ready, it goes in a particular type of coffin known as an aron. The aron is made of pine and is completely biodegradable.
During the funeral service
The Jewish tradition of honouring the dead, known as K’vod Hamet, requires the deceased's body to be buried within 24 hours of the time of death. While this is not always possible, Jewish people try to stick to this tradition.
The funeral service usually takes place at the cemetery. The service starts with a eulogy read by a rabbi or an immediate family member, followed by various prayers. When the funeral service is finished, the coffin is wheeled on a trolley to the grave. The family leads the procession and guests follow to the graveside ceremony.
Once the coffin is lowered into the grave, it’s tradition for family members and close friends to each take a shovelful of dirt and drop it onto the casket. Once the casket has been buried, a final prayer is said before the attendees stand in two lines facing each other. The immediate family of the deceased walk between the two lines of attendees, who say traditional words of comfort. Prior to leaving the cemetery, attendees will typically wash their hands as a symbol of spiritual cleansing.
After a Jewish funeral
Jewish mourning periods are in two parts: Shiva and Shloshim.
Shiva, meaning seven, is first. It takes place over the seven days immediately following the funeral. During this time, the family stops all regular activities and stay home to mourn and pray. People who knew the deceased, and friends of the mourners, visit them to share stories and offer comfort. During this time, there are many rules the mourners traditionally follow. For example, mirrors throughout the house are covered. One reason given for this is that mirrors may be associated with vanity and a preoccupation with one’s external appearance. It is inappropriate to focus on such things during a period of mourning.
Shloshim, meaning thirty, is the second mourning period and lasts for 30 days. During this time, the family begins returning to their normal routines.
The final milestone of Jewish mourning is the consecration or stone-setting, traditionally held on or around the first anniversary of a person’s passing. At this time, family and friends of the deceased return to the grave where they hold a short prayer service and unveil the headstone.
Jewish tradition also has an annual memorial on the anniversary of the death, which involves burning a candle for 24 hours and reciting a particular prayer.
Jewish funeral etiquette
Do you send flowers?
Jewish people do not send funeral flowers before or after the funeral. Jewish people also don’t leave flowers at the gravesite. Instead, they place stones on the headstone. According to Jewish tradition by placing a pebble or stone on the tombstone, visitors are honouring the deceased by letting others know the gravesite has been recently visited. In addition, whilst flowers eventually die, stones remain forever.
What do you wear to a Jewish funeral?
It’s appropriate to wear modest, dark clothing to a Jewish funeral. Our guide on what to wear to a funeral applies to all types of funerals.
Organ donation and cremations
Donating your body to science is accepted and considered a good deed in Judaism. However, autopsies are forbidden.
Cremation is forbidden according to orthodox Jewish law.
Jewish funerals follow specific traditions and etiquette before, during and after the funeral service. If you’re attending a Jewish funeral, make sure to respect the traditions.
If you have specific wishes for your funeral, it’s a good idea to note them in your Will. You can write your legal Will online in less than 15 minutes, saving your family money and stress when the time comes.