Frequently Asked Questions About Jewish Funeral Customs
It’s not easy to talk about your end-of-life wishes, but it’s We often hear from our client families and service attendees who are not familiar with many of the Jewish funeral customs performed by Mount Sinai. If you have additional questions about Jewish funeral customs for which you would like to know the answer, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Information About Jewish Funeral Customs For Family Members
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What information will I need to provide when a loved one passes?
Mount Sinai will need a number of vital statistics, including the departed’s Social Security number, parents’ names and birthplaces as well as other information in order to complete legally required documents and to have a complete record on hand to assist you. To ease this process, Mount Sinai has developed the Mount Sinai Memorial Record and Guide which is incorporated as part of our Advance Planning Portfolio, which is available free by request. The Mount Sinai Memorial Record and Guide can be completed at any time, even many years in advance, and revised as circumstances change to assist you with your Jewish funeral planning.
How will we select a time and date for the funeral?
We will work with your family and clergy to coordinate all of the details of the service at a time that is most convenient for you. While traditional Jewish funeral customs call for burial to take place as soon as possible, we understand that families today are often scattered around the country, so scheduling needs to be flexible. The customary time frame for scheduling a funeral service is as soon as possible after everyone arrives, usually within two to three days, however we do not hold funeral services on Saturday in observance of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath). If you choose, we will post the service time and place on our website to help notify your family and friends in the community as well as provide you with a link to webpage that you can easily email to friends and loved ones.
Who will officiate at the funeral?
Most often a Rabbi or a Cantor will officiate the funeral, supported by one of our Mount Sinai Service Directors who will oversee all logistics of the service so you do not have to be burdened with all of the details. If you do not have an existing relationship with a Rabbi, or if your Rabbi is unavailable, we can assist by scheduling and introducing your family to a Rabbi or a Cantor whose religious orientation is compatible with your beliefs.
I was advised to contact the Chevra Kadisha instead of Mount Sinai. What does this mean?
According to traditional Jewish practices, the Chevra Kadisha is an organization traditionally composed of volunteers who ensure that the bodies of Jews are prepared for burial according to Halacha (Jewish law).
Today, in many ways, Mount Sinai functions as a Chevra Kadisha for the entire Los Angeles Jewish community by offering the traditional Jewish observances of Taharah (Ritual Washing) and Sh’mira (Watching over the Deceased and reciting Psalms). In addition, to offer assistance and comfort to our most traditional families, we will always help facilitate communications with various local Chevra Kadisha volunteer organizations throughout Los Angeles.
Please note that although there is a privately-owned mortuary in Los Angeles named “Chevra Kadisha Mortuary,” that establishment is not a volunteer society. For more information about the Chevra Kadisha services offered by Mount Sinai, please click here.
What types of caskets can be used?
Jewish tradition dictates that the casket should be constructed of wood and must be totally free of metal. No nails, screws, or metal hardware can be in its workmanship. While a plain pine box is used by many traditional families today, caskets constructed from poplar, oak, cherry, maple, mahogany or any other type of wood are popular as well. The casket can be stained or unstained, polished or unpolished, and can be of various shapes.
However, for families who would like to consider other materials for caskets, please inform your Memorial Counselor and we are happy to show you additional options.
How should the deceased be clothed?
The Rabbis teach us that all are created equal. In order to preserve that equality, there has evolved a two-thousand-year-old tradition of using Tachrichim, simple white shrouds, as burial garments as a traditional Jewish funeral custom. Over time, the use of burial garments has been expanded to allow for the deceased to be buried in the clothing of the family’s choice.
Who can be a pallbearer?
Jewish funeral custom includes pallbearers, who are asked to lovingly escort the deceased to the gravesite, are invited by the family and are usually those closest to the deceased. Individuals may also be chosen to be honorary pallbearers who will not carry the casket but will follow immediately behind. In very traditional practice, the pallbearers stop seven times during this journey to indicate their unwillingness to finally take leave of a loved one.
Is it appropriate to play music or show a video during the service?
According to your family’s wishes, music may be played in the chapel before, during and/or after the funeral service. You are welcome to choose appropriate music and bring it with you on the day of the service, or Mount Sinai’s Scores of Memory CD is available as are a number of other appropriate CDs. If you wish to show video footage, each of our memorial chapels is outfitted with a DVD player and several large screen monitors for easy viewing by your guests.
Do you have to be Jewish to be buried at Mount Sinai?
We welcome interfaith families. If you are Jewish or are married to someone of the Jewish faith and you want to be buried together, we will take good care of you and your family. Please note, however, that non-Jewish symbols cannot be displayed anywhere on our property.
What happens during the actual service?
A Jewish funeral service is typically brief and simple, providing comfort by creating time and space for the mourners and the community to recall memories of the deceased and to express their sorrow. The service may be held in a chapel at the memorial park, in the synagogue, or at the gravesite.
The basic elements of a traditional service include the chanting of psalms and of El Malei Rachamim, followed by recitation of a hesped, a eulogy honoring the deceased. Many times, family members or close friends give a short speech about departed. Selected family members and friends may act as pallbearers to carry the casket, with others following. At the end of the service, all mourners recite the Kaddish prayer together.
How is the burial conducted?
Mount Sinai respects the wishes of every family in regard to completion of the burial. Historical convention involves the mourners, family members and others attending the funeral who choose to participate, will shovel earth to cover the casket. One tradition is to use the back of the shovel, to show our unwillingness to perform this final act of separation. Another tradition is for each mourner to plant the shovel back in the mound of earth rather than hand the shovel to the next person. Other families request that the Mount Sinai staff complete this act. We are here to assist you in the manner that makes you most comfortable.
What happens immediately after the funeral?
After the service, Mount Sinai will provide your family a kit containing the 7 day shiva candles, minyan prayer books and yarmulkes for the shiva house as well as the remembrance cards filled out by your guests and thank you cards.
What is the traditional observance in the week following the funeral?
Upon leaving the gravesite, the immediate family commences the seven day shiva period; they “sit shiva”. During this period meals are usually brought in for the family to allow them to focus on mourning. Family and friends typically pay what is called a “shiva call” to visit the family to bring food, company, comfort and a sympathetic ear. There is often a brief religious service each morning and/or evening. Each family chooses whether, how, and for how long, they will observe shiva. Again, it is the presence of friends and family at this time that is the most crucial to healing.
Can I make Jewish funeral plans before the time of need?
Planning a Jewish funeral ahead of time is truly a gift that you provide to your family which spares them from having to make difficult decisions during an extremely emotional time. Our Advance Planning representatives are always available to answer any questions you may have.
Can someone who has a tattoo be buried at Mount Sinai?
There is nothing in Jewish law which prohibits a person who has a tattoo from being buried at Mount Sinai or any Jewish cemetery. We hear this question often due to today’s popularity of tattoos as well as how this subject is often mentioned in pop culture. In fact, we refer to it as the “Jewish Cemetery Tattoo Myth” and in 2002, Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman eloquently answered this question for us.
Here is an interesting excerpt from Rabbi Ben Zion Bergman’s letter which provides an overview of the Jewish Tattoo Myth…
“Although the Torah does indeed forbid inscribing a tattoo on one’s body (Leviticus 19:28) this in no way impinges upon one’s eligibility, right or privilege to be buried with fellow Jews in sanctified ground. The Torah also forbids eating pork and other forbidden foods, but I am sure that there are many buried in Mt. Sinai and other Jewish cemeteries who did not adhere strictly to the Jewish dietary laws. The prohibition against tattoos is no more stringent or severe than the dietary prohibitions.”
Can a person be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they committed suicide?
The answer is yes. In earlier times, this ancient prohibition against doing so was based upon the conception of suicide as the conscious and willful taking of one’s life. Today, we view suicide as the result of mental and emotional desperation and, virtually by definition, an irrational, non-willful act. Therefore, even if all evidence points to suicide and even if that evidence satisfies the authorities as to the cause of death, our custom is to bury these individuals, to engage in mourning rituals for them, and to eulogize them appropriately.
Can same sex couples be buried at Mount Sinai?
Yes, we welcome all members of the LGBTQ community. In the spirit of inclusivity, all married couples can be buried together. If you are Jewish or are married to someone of the Jewish faith, we will take good care of you and your family.
What is a Yahrzeit date and how do I find it?
Yahrzeit is Yiddish word meaning anniversary of a death. It is the yearly acknowledgement of a loved one’s passing traditionally observed on the Hebrew date, not the Gregorian date. Jews observe yahrzeit each year by reciting kaddish at synagogue and by lighting a special candle that burns for 24 hours. The candle/lamp is lit at sundown the evening before the civil date. To compute a yahrzeit date there are many online tools available including Digital Yahrzeit where you can register to receive annual email notifications of the upcoming Yahrzeit observances.
Information About Jewish Funeral Customs For Service Attendees
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This will be the first Jewish funeral I have attended. Is there anything special I should plan or do?
Your presence is the most important gift you can give to the mourners. It is customary for all males entering the chapel to wear a traditional head covering, called a kippah or yarmulke, which we provide at both the chapel and at graveside. After the burial, you may be asked to be part of two rows of people forming a pathway of comfort for the mourners.
What should I wear to a Jewish funeral?
While it is customary to dress in dark-colored, conservative suits and dresses at a Jewish funeral, we encourage mourners to wear what is comfortable for them, as long as it is respectful to the deceased and other mourners. It is also customary for men to cover their head as a sign of respect. We always have yarmulkes available for those who do not own them.
What is customary to send or bring to a Jewish funeral?
While you may see flowers at Jewish funerals, it is a Jewish funeral custom that families more often request that charitable contributions be made in memory of the deceased to either a specific charity or to one of your choice. This is in keeping with the Jewish tradition of Tzedakah, or charity.
What is customary to bring when visiting a grave at Mount Sinai or another Jewish cemetery?
Placing small stones or pebbles on the grave is the traditional means of marking a visit. Mount Sinai offers bags of soft pebbles imported from Jerusalem to park visitors so that they can leave them behind at graveside. Additionally, many people have adopted the practice of leaving flowers as a sign of love and respect.
I see that some of the mourners wear a torn ribbon affixed to their clothes and some actually cut their clothes. What is the meaning of this?
This ritual, known as k’riah, is the traditional rending of one’s garments to represent loss and mourning.
Often, k’riah is performed symbolically, with the cutting of a ribbon worn by the mourners closest in family connection to the deceased. According to Jewish law, there are seven immediate family members who should rend garments: the spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, brother or sister.
Why do Persian Jewish families ask for rosewater when they visit the cemetery?
This is a Sephardic tradition observed by many Jewish families who come from Iran and Turkey. The rosewater is typically poured over the grave or memorial tablet to represent masking the smell of death. If requested, Mount Sinai offers complimentary rose water to all park visitors.
Why is there a hand washing station near the exit of the cemetery?
It is an ancient custom for everyone to wash their hands when leaving a Jewish cemetery as a symbol of spiritual cleansing.
What is a yahrzeit (memorial) candle?
A Yahrzeit candle is a special 24-hour candle which is burned on certain occasions to commemorate the anniversary of someone’s death, usually a family member or someone who was very close to you. Yahrzeit candles are lighted at sundown on the day preceding the anniversary of the person’s death, according to the Hebrew calendar. The candle is lighted at sundown and should remain lighted until it goes out. To learn more about Yahrzeit and to access our Yahrzeit calendar to determine the Hebrew date, click here.
Additionally, Mount Sinai now offers a new service, called Digital Yahrzeit, where one can register to receive annual notifications of upcoming Yahrzeit anniversaries via email (on either the Hebrew or English calendar) so one knows exactly when to light the Yahrzeit candle. Digital Yahrzeit is a free service which we have made available to the public regardless of where loved ones are buried. To register for Digital Yahrzeit, please click here.
What is the Shiva House?
Upon leaving the gravesite, the immediate family commences the seven day shiva period; they “sit shiva.” During this period meals are usually brought in for the family to allow them to focus on mourning. Family and friends typically pay what is called a “shiva call” to visit the family to bring food, company, comfort and a sympathetic ear. There is often a brief religious service each morning and/or evening. Each family chooses whether, how, and for how long, they will observe shiva. Again, it is the presence of friends and family at this time that is the most crucial to healing.
Do you have to be Jewish to be buried at Mount Sinai?
If you are Jewish or are married to someone of the Jewish faith and you want to be buried together, we will take good care of you and your family.
What is the meaning of leaving pebbles behind in a Jewish cemetery?
Placing stones on a grave is an ancient Jewish tradition which signifies that someone has recently visited the grave. Stones symbolize permanence of memory and enable visitors to partake in the mitzvah of commemorating the deceased.
Mount Sinai offers all visitors packets of pebbles, imported from Jerusalem, to leave on the grave as a sign of their visit.