A funeral service, regardless of which faith or religion’s traditions it abides by, is always a ceremony of great sentiment, emotion and meaning. If you are attending a Jewish funeral service in the near future, you may have questions as to what the ceremony will entail, the proper etiquette to follow and the traditions that will be observed. We have put together an overview of the traditions and etiquette you would normally experience at a Jewish funeral service, so you are best prepared to pay your respects at the Jewish funeral of a friend or family member.
It is believed that while there is a right way to live as a Jew, the same goes for death, in that there is a right way to die and be buried as a Jew. According to the Jewish religion, it is believed that all people are created in the image of God. Jewish people abide by the philosophy that one should embrace life while accepting the eventuality of death. They hold the belief that while there is no one or right view in regard to what will happen in the afterlife, and are free to choose whether to believe in heaven or not, there is a strong focus on doing good deeds during life, so as to live in the image of God According to Jewish tradition, it is considered a mitzvot (commandment) of profound significance to accompany the decedent to their burial, helping them reach their eternal resting place.
According to the Jewish religion, the burial of the decedent should take place within a day of their passing or the soonest possible date it can be arranged. However, with loved ones coordinating travel plans from all over to attend the funeral, it is accepted and common nowadays for the funeral to take place a few days after the decedent’s passing.
Jewish funeral services can be held at various locations, typically beginning at the synagogue, and are completed at the cemetery. It is also common for services to take place at a funeral home prior to the cemetery. Others are completed entirely at the gravesite.
According to Jewish tradition, the deceased is to be buried in a simple, wooden casket and it is to be closed. Immediate family are permitted to view the body if they wish to do so, prior to the services. Other than the immediate family, no one else is permitted to view the body – as it is believed that if the decedent cannot gaze upon you, you should not be able to look upon them either.
At the service, attendees are to be dressed in conservative, semi-formal apparel to pay their respects. Male guests should wear a jacket and tie with a yarmulke covering their heads, while women dress modestly in a skirt or dress of dark, somber colors. Female guests are not required to wear a head covering. Attendees’ presence at the service as is highly appreciated, providing comfort and support to the deceased’ grieving family during this difficult time.
A rabbi or cantor will conduct the ceremony, beginning with the cutting of a black ribbon symbolizing the departure of the decedent from loved ones. Opening prayers from the Torah will then follow, after which the eulogy will be read by the rabbi or cantor. The eulogy is a beautiful tribute to the decedent, celebrating their life and spirit. Family and loved ones will usually take to the alter to offer a few words of their own about the deceased, after the rabbi or cantor has spoken. This will be followed by more prayers until the funeral procession is to begin in which the casket is then removed and prepared for its transfer to the gravesite.
At the cemetery or mausoleum, a short but meaningful ceremony will take place. The pallbearers will carry the casket to the gravesite, and as it is lowered into the ground, prayers are said. Traditionally, the mourners’ kaddish (hymn of praise to God) is to be recited, which is followed by an “amen” by all in attendance.
The last act at the gravesite holds profound significance, in which attendees will shovel earth or stones into the grave, a gesture that possesses different meanings, but across all sects of Jewish religion symbolizes helping the deceased reach their eternal resting place, peacefully.
Traditionally, after the Jewish funeral service has completed, it is customary for Shiva to be observed. Shiva is a seven-day ceremony in which loved ones of the deceased will continue to pay their respects and mourn. During this time, family and friends of the decedent, as well as acquaintances will come to the decedent’s family’s home to offer their support. According to Jewish tradition, it is customary as well as a gesture of love and compassion to bring food. Mirrors are to be typically covered during this time as well, symbolizing how the family should not be preoccupied by concerns regarding their personal appearance, and rather focus their attention on honoring the deceased.
According to the Jewish religion, the funeral service is a ceremony that embraces the inevitability and permanence of death. While flowers are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, they symbolize life. It is believed that again, as the primary focus should be on paying tribute and respects to the decedent while accepting their death, the shiva house should not be adorned with something beautiful, such as flowers that are living. This is also the reason that traditionally, stones or earth are placed in the decedent’s gravesite as opposed to flowers.
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