Jewish tradition teaches that human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). This is the underpinning of all of the rituals and customs that make up a Jewish funeral. This concept extends both to the deceased and the mourners. Each community has their own customs in regard to funeral practices. Some customs are dictated by tradition. Others are the result of local laws and regulations, especially when it comes to cemetery rules (see below). Nonetheless, certain key concepts are universally practiced by all streams of Judaism:
Location of the service
Jewish funerals can take place in a variety of locations. In Los Angeles we use Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, Groman Eden Mortuary, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and Home of Peace Memorial Park. Malinow and Silverman Mortuary is a mortuary which can provide funeral services. Some funerals are held exclusively graveside while others begin at the synagogue or the chapel at the cemetery, and then move to the final interment site.
Timing of the service
Burial takes place as soon as possible. It usually becomes necessary to wait a day or two until all of the mourning family can arrive. Jewish funerals cannot take place on Shabbat or on most Jewish holidays.
Mourners or avelim
We mourn for seven relatives which include the mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, or spouse. This does not mean that others do not grieve the loss of the deceased, but avelim have specific roles to perform - both in the funeral service in the days preceding, and during the months following.
Accompanying the dead for burial
One of the most important mitzvots (commandments) we can perform is helping our loved ones find their final resting place. Our presence at a funeral is symbolic. Placing earth in the grave of a loved one (see below) is a powerful act of service and love.
Comforting the mourners/nichum avelim
One of the most important mitzvot that we can perform is the act of nichum avelim - comforting mourners. When we attend a funeral and are not avelim ourselves, our very presence provides comfort. Supporting our friends at their time of need is a powerful statement that goes far beyond attending at the service.
Jewish tradition teaches that the deceased should be buried in a simple casket. It should be completely biodegradable. A kosher casket is made entirely of wood - with no nails whatsoever. Embalming is also not permitted (unless required by law). The reason for this is so that the process of decomposition can take place in a natural fashion. Open caskets are not permitted at Jewish funerals. In most cases, the closed casket is present at the service. Jewish law is also subject to local laws. As such, rules about embalming, grave liners, and other regulations that are in place for public health must be followed.
Order of the service in the chapel/sanctuary
- Gathering of the mourners - Traditionally, mourners do not greet attendees until after burial. Prior to the service, family members and loved ones of the deceased will gather together in a separate room and wait until the service is about to begin.
- Keriah (tearing) - Just before the beginning of the burial service, the rabbi or cantor will gather the mourners together and place a black ribbon on their outer garment. The act of tearing is an ancient ritual that serves several functions:
1) Since we are physical beings, we need to do something physical to express our grief;
2) It is a symbol of the tear in the fabric of the family after the death of a loved one;
3) It sets up a separation of status: prior to this moment, the mourners have had the responsibility of taking care of all of the details of the funeral and now their responsibility shifts to allowing the community to take care of them. As the ribbons/garments are being torn, the following is said by the mourners: "Baruch atah Adonai, Dayan Ha-Emet - Blessed are You, Adonai, Truthful Judge." Others may also recite the following passage from the book of Job: "Adonai natan, Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai m'vorach - God has given, God has taken away, blessed be the name of God." The ribbons or torn garments are traditionally worn on the outer garment for the first seven days of mourning - the period of shiva.
- Procession of the mourners - Once all of the attendees are seated, the mourners are ushered into the service and seated in the front rows of the chapel.
- Opening prayers - The service usually begins with the reading or chanting of Biblical passages, usually from the book of Psalms. This is followed by silent prayer and then a eulogy is delivered.
- Eulogy or hespeid - The eulogy honors the deceased and comforts the mourners. The rabbi or cantor delivers the eulogy after meeting with family members and loved ones. Rabbis and cantors are specially trained to take the information shared and weave it together to paint a picture of the deceased, reflecting the essence of the person who has died and bringing comfort to the mourners. Sometimes family members and close friends will want to speak about their loved one at the service. This can be a very important part of their mourning/grieving process. At the same time, no one should ever feel compelled to speak at the funeral of a loved one. Remarks should be brief and written down (very important). The reason for this is that, for whatever reason, if the family member is unable to deliver their remarks, the clergy officiating can read it for them.
- El Malei Rachamim - This is a prayer that mentions the deceased by their Hebrew name and states that they are "sheltered beneath the wings of God's presence." The congregation stands during the chanting of this prayer.
- Recession of family members - In most cases, after the El Malei Rachamim is recited, the family exits the chapel and prepares for the procession to the grave for burial.
- Removal of casket - After the family leaves, those individuals who have been honored as pall bearers will process from the chapel to the funeral carriage. The rest of the congregation waits until the casket has been escorted from the room. It is customary to recite Psalms during this procession. Casket bearers should not be mourners, if possible, and both men and women can serve in this way. Those people who are not able to physically lift the casket can also be designated as "honorary" casket bearers.
- Procession to Cemetery - A funeral procession from the chapel is formed by the vehicles of those in attendance who will be going to the cemetery. Again, it is considered to be an important mitzvah to accompany a person to their final resting place. If the synagogue is the site of the funeral, it is often too difficult to have a procession to the grave site due to congestion on Los Angeles streets and freeways.
The order of the service at the graveside
The cemetery service is very brief. Once all of the mourners and attendees have gathered at the graveside, the pall bearers take the coffin out of the wagon and walk to the grave.
- Lowering of the casket - The casket is lowered immediately while prayers are recited. The cemetery provides a lowering device which gently places the casket at the bottom of the grave.
- Prayers at graveside - There are a short series of prayers dealing with mortality and love.
- Mourner's Kaddish - The Mourner's Kaddish is a doxology - a prayer extolling God. It does not specifically mention death. The Kaddish is recited by the mourners for the first time at graveside. Traditionally, it is recited every day for 11 months following burial and then on the yahrzeit (yearly anniversary) of the deceased.
- Placing earth in the grave - Since the mitzvah of "accompanying the dead for burial" is so important, the act of placing earth into the grave takes on a very important role in the service. Following the placing of the vault lid, earth is symbolically placed above the casket in the grave. Often earth from the Land of Israel is also sprinkled on the casket. Some people use the back side of the shovel to show that this is neither an easy task or a regular one.
Nichum Avelim (comforting the mourners) at the end of the service
After the service is concluded, the mourners return to the vehicle that will take them to the house where shiva will be observed. It is customary that the congregation, which has gathered offers the following words to the immediate mourners: "HaMakom yenachem etchem b'toch she'ar avalei Tzyion V'Yirushalayim - May God console you with all who mourn in the midst of the Gates of Zion and Jerusalem." Participants then proceed to the house of mourning to participate in the shiva.
Adapted by Rabbi Morley Feinstein from reformjudaism.org and Rabbi Joe Black