I’m not Jewish, but I’m going to a Jewish funeral. Now what?
When there is a death – a family member, a friend or a death in the family of a friend – people have the same reaction. They want to be there to lend emotional support and help with practical matters if possible. Giving a hug and listening or running errands and bringing food come to mind.
The funeral traditions of different religions might be daunting simply because they are unfamiliar. To be respectful and to know what to expect when attending a Jewish funeral, non-Jewish mourners should keep the following points in mind.
- Funeral services are normally held in a synagogue or funeral home.
- The casket will not be open.
- The length of the service will vary.
- Men and women should wear dark clothing.
- Flowers should not be sent. Instead, a donation to a charity on behalf of the deceased can be made.
- Sending food to the family is welcomed.
- Visiting the family in their homes is welcomed during the first seven days of mourning, known as the Shiva.
Showing respect for the dignity of the dead is the foundational concept of a Jewish funeral, according to Rabbi Jack Romberg of Tallahassee’s Temple Israel. “From the moment of death until the funeral has concluded, the idea is to place the focus on the person who has passed,” he says.
Care of the Deceased
The key components of traditional care of the deceased in Judaism include a ritual cleansing the body through bathing, known as Taharah, followed by dressing the body in burial garments, or tachrichim.
“We have a group that does this, between Temple Israel and Shomrei Torah (another local Jewish congregation), for anybody in Tallahassee’s Jewish community,” Romberg says. “After the body is bathed and placed into the casket, we will arrange to have people take turns sitting with the body to read psalms until the funeral.”
Ceremonies and Rituals
In the minutes prior to the funeral, members of the immediate family are given black ribbons that they tear – echoing the Biblical tradition for mourners to tear or rend their clothing. The family wears these ribbons for the next seven days, except on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays.
At the grave site, the presiding rabbi delivers a eulogy to honor the deceased’s life. Afterward, those attending the funeral have the chance to make their own remarks about the deceased. “My experience has been that about 50 percent of the time, you get people who want to say something about the deceased. They feel like they really do need to say something,” Romberg says. “But some people just need to sit and listen, because that’s how they process their mourning.”
Prayers and the reading of scripture will take place throughout the service. Some will not be familiar to non-Jewish mourners because they are recited in Hebrew. Others, recited in English, will be, such as the 23rd Psalm, a common part of Jewish funerals. Romberg says that the non-Jewish mourner is welcome to participate in any recitation that is familiar.
Another aspect that non-Jewish mourners are welcome to participate in is the burial, or K’vurah. After the casket is lowered into the ground, mourners take turns using shovels to place earth over the casket. This practice – another aspect of demonstrating respect for the dignity of the deceased – is a good deed, or mitzvah, that mourners do for the deceased as a special favor because it can never be repaid.
“My experience is that almost everyone wants to participate,” Romberg says. “There are always a few people who feel funny doing it because it’s not their tradition, but the vast majority of people find it meaningful.” He added that the shovels are turned upside down to symbolize the regret of having to perform the act because you’ve lost the person. “You can’t fit much earth on the backside of a shovel.”
Methods of Disposition
Traditionally, the body of the deceased is buried, although cremation is becoming more accepted.
As for the timing of the burial, embalming is traditionally prohibited, so the Orthodox tradition calls for a funeral to take place within 24 hours after the death occurs. However, the Conservative and Reform (nonorthodox) traditions are less stringent in following this timeline. “You recognize that circumstances might not allow everything to happen within 24 hours,” Romberg says. “People might have to fly in from the other side of the country. Sometimes you have to do it as quickly is as reasonably possible, perhaps within 48 or 54 hours.
“It would be wrong to exclude somebody who needs to grab a plane,” he says.
Another difference between Orthodox and Conservative/Reform traditions is leadership roles being filled by women. “In the Conservative and Reform traditions, there are women rabbis and cantors who do funerals,” Romberg says. “But otherwise, the basic prayers are the same. The basic structure of the service is the same.”
And finally, caskets chosen by Jewish believers are made entirely of wood. The reason honors scripture that says God made people from the dust of the Earth, and that is what they return to. “An all-wood casket degrades more quickly than a metal one,” he says.
While customs differ from religion to religion, there are universal norms of funeral care that are practiced across all religions, including care of the deceased, a ceremony or ritual and a method of disposition. In a multipart series, Bevis Funeral Home talks to the local faith community about the funeral customs of various religions, including Buddism; Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; and Unitarian Universalism.
For more information about the funeral traditions of various religious faiths, call Bevis Funeral Home at (850) 385-2193.