THE JEWISH FUNERAL SERVICE


Jewish funerals are marked by brevity and simplicity

Folded hands

Jewish funerals are marked by brevity and simplicity. A Jewish funeral service may be held entirely at graveside or may be held in a chapel or synagogue. The service is often led by a rabbi but may be led by any Jewish individual well-versed in the prayers and traditions.

Tefila - A plain pine casket

So that the dignity of a person is respected even in death, the casket is always closed at a traditional Jewish funeral service. However, if requested, viewing of the body prior to the service may be arranged for family members. 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.

The traditional Jewish funeral service includes the recitation of El Malei Rachamim followed by recitation of a hesped, a eulogy honoring the deceased.  The hesped  is usually delivered by the rabbi, but it also may be delivered by a person chosen in advance by the deceased, or by members of the deceased's family. The eulogy honors the deceased by recalling his or her life, good deeds and achievements. Often, family members or close friends will also speak about the deceased and share fond memories and stories.

 

Cover of Funeral Guide. Shows close up of Tallit along with a wooden Star of David

Click to download The Mount Sinai Guide to Traditional Jewish Funeral Practices

After the Jewish funeral service, the mourners usually accompany the casket to the burial. As a sign of respect, no one exits the building before the deceased. The casket will be carried or wheeled out of the chapel on a special wagon with pallbearers walking alongside. At the burial site, the casket is taken from the funeral coach and carried by six or more pallbearers. Tradition has it that no children of the deceased can be pallbearers, and nowadays, members of the immediate family do not act as pallbearers. The honor of carrying the deceased to his or her final resting-place is usually given to family and close friends and is considered to be a mitzvah (good deed).

The casket is lowered into the ground by hand or by mechanical device after the recitation of prayers at graveside,  The rabbi then hands one of the principal mourners a trowel or simply gestures for him or her to pick up the shovel placed beside or in a pile of newly dug earth. Children, parents, siblings, and spouse come forward, taking turns dropping a little of the soil onto the casket using the back of shovel to place dirt on the lowered casket as a sign of reluctance. In some communities, each mourner replaces the shovel back in the earth rather than hand it from one person to the next–a practice probably born of the idea that death is somehow contagious. However, others find it comforting to give the spade to the next person, acknowledging the shared nature of the task.

After the immediate family has symbolically buried their loved one, others may assist in filling in the grave, which is considered a final act of respect and love for the deceased.