Jewish Funeral Traditions Keep Heritage Alive
Jewish Traditions for Funerals
The view of death in Judaism is to treat the body as a holy object, since it was the “house of the soul.” Immediately upon a person’s passing away, someone sits with the body until burial. Burial happens as soon as possible, unless there is a pressing reason for it not to. Otherwise, it can happen in a day.
Jewish people are believed to view death more pragmatically than other cultures. Jewish traditions include a set period of mourning and short funeral ceremonies, although many have no service at all. Judaism does not support embalming or the enhancement of the body, and rather, it seeks to dignify a person’s passing, often wrapping the person in their prayer cloth or dressing the body in white. White clothing should have no pockets, as a symbol of not being able to take anything with us into the afterlife.
Caskets for Jewish burials are wood without metal, and flowers are considered frivolous at a Jewish funeral. Judaic tradition does not allow for a viewing of the body, on the belief that it is disrespectful to look at someone who cannot look back at you. Most all of the deceased are buried in the ground and mourners usually watch the grave being filled in with dirt. Mausoleums may be acceptable, depending on the Rabbi, but cremation is usually not an option for a Jewish burial service.
Because funerals in the US are a multimillion dollar industry, some Jewish families have been encouraged to go against their customs and buy more elaborate caskets or have a viewing.
Jewish Traditions of Mourning
The Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that celebrates God and life, is said by the family at the cemetery. Mourners continue to recite this traditional Jewish prayer for eleven months, and also on the anniversary of the person’s death. A custom that started in the 13th century, reciting the Mourners Kaddish is a way of showing respect for a relative and glorifying God in the presence of the body, which elevates the deceased.
Jewish burial traditions specify that traditional mourners include the spouse, parent, child, or sibling of the deceased. Mourners must observe the traditions of mourning. Before, during, or after the funeral service, mourners “render their garments” or tear a piece of their clothing. If the clothing is torn on the left side of the body, they are mourning a parent. For all other relatives, the clothing is torn on the right side. Now, some people wear a black ribbon to symbolize the tradition.
Several other customs are observed, depending on the Rabbi’s guidance. Some traditions include covering mirrors in the house of mourning, placing a pitcher of water outside the house so visitors can wash their hands, and taking one route on the way to the funeral, and a different route home from the funeral. After the funeral, the community often provides the first meal.
Periods of mourning follow the funeral starting with Shiva, seven days of visitation by the community to offer their condolences. Services may be held three times a day and mourners do not leave their homes except to visit the Synagogue. This period is highlighted by talking about memories and honoring the deceased.
The next period of mourning is 28 days long, including the week of Shiva. This longer period is for mourners to get back into the world, although activities are still expected to have dignity, not be festive.
Yahrzeit is the anniversary of a person’s death. It is recognized by burning a candle for 24 hours and reciting the Kaddish. Cemetery visitations are supposed to be few and brief, with the belief that visiting the cemetery too much gives too much importance to the deceased, which would compare him or her to God. Headstones may be placed at Yahrzeit with a small ceremony, although many Rabbis allow the stone to be placed earlier.
As Jewish people from around the world immigrated to America, many of the traditional customs have been less strictly followed, in an effort to blend people’s traditions.
Everlasting Footprint celebrates the traditions of people from all histories and backgrounds. Sharing stories about the lives of people we love is one of the most honest ways we can show we care.
Respecting and honoring Jewish traditions and heritage, and sharing the importance of their values, is important to us this May. Join us for Jewish American Heritage Month and tell us the stories of what makes your loved ones special.