Jewish funeral traditions
According to Jewish funeral tradition, a deceased person should be buried as soon as practicably possible; therefore funeral planning should begin immediately by contacting a rabbi or chosen funeral home.
While Orthodox Jews prohibit cremation, Reform Jews have accepted cremation and it is growing in popularity.
Organ donation and donating a body to medical science are both widely accepted in Judaism - they are viewed as a good deed (‘mitzvah’). However, routine post-mortems are not accepted and are seen as a desecration of the body. Where a post-mortem is necessary for legal reasons, a Rabbi should be present and non-invasive techniques should be used where possible.
Before the funeral
Directly proceeding a death, the Dayan Ha’Emet prayer is recited and a ‘shomer’ is assigned (sometimes with the help of the Rabbi or funeral home) as guardian of the deceased person, who will stay with the body until burial. Often this is a member of the family but it can also be a friend, member of the synagogue or ‘Chevra Kadisha’ (burial society). It is also common for multiple shomers to be assigned, staying with the deceased person in shifts.
Before burial the deceased person is washed, purified and dressed, a process known as ‘Taharah’. Taharah is carried out by the Chevra Kadisha and should be members of the same sex as the deceased person.
The deceased person is then dressed in a simple white shroud called a ‘tachrichim’, with the addition of a prayer shawl and religious skull cap for men. They are placed in a simple biodegradable coffin called an ‘Aron’, which is then sealed until burial.
The Jewish funeral service and etiquette
Traditionally, the Jewish funeral service is held the day after death at a synagogue or funeral home. Usually lasting between 15 minutes and an hour, the service is led by the Rabbi and consists of prayers, readings of psalms and a eulogy.
After the service, mourners will follow the hearse to the place of burial. After a hymn and more prayers led by the Rabbi, the coffin will be interred. Members of the family will be invited to place dirt on the coffin, helping to fill the grave.
Flowers and music are not typical at Jewish funerals and cameras and recording equipment are discouraged.
What to wear to a Jewish funeral
While there are variations in etiquette for Jewish funeral services, the basic principle is ‘respect’. Clothing should be modest and subdued in colour, with many people choosing to wear black. Usually a skullcap is required by men and women should cover their heads.
What happens after a Jewish funeral
After the burial, a reception is usually held either at the synagogue or in the bereaved family’s home. Tradition may require mirrors to be covered in the house; removing distraction and encouraging focus on the deceased person.
There is then a mourning period of seven days called ‘Shiva’, where other customs like lighting a candle are observed.