What to expect when attending a Jewish funeral

June 24, 2014

Like all cultures, Jewish communities mourn their deceased relatives in distinct ways. If you're unfamiliar with the customs, and are planning to attend a Jewish funeral, here's what you need to know.

What to expect when attending a Jewish funeral

What happens before the funeral

Unlike many other religions, Jews do not believe in embalming the body before burial. As a result, the funeral must be set up quickly—usually within a day or two—so that the body can be buried before it begins to decompose. Jews do not have a wake or any other mourning period before the body is placed in the ground. However, it is traditional for members of the immediate family to view the body privately before the funeral service. The need for a quick burial means that Jewish funerals tend to be more intimate affairs, but all faiths are welcome.

Many Jews also believe that cremation and autopsies are a desecration of the body, so it is very rare for either to occur. However, organ donation is considered a mitzvah—or good deed—and it is permitted.

During the funeral

The actual funeral is fairly similar to Christian funerals. A rabbi will officiate the service in the cemetery chapel, and then everyone attending the funeral will walk to the burial site. The casket is then lowered into the grave, and everyone who wishes to participate shovels dirt onto the casket. The immediate family always shovels first. Interestingly, the backside of the shovel is used, in order to symbolize reluctance and difficulty with the task.

Jewish mourning begins after the funeral

Because Jewish bodies are buried so quickly, the mourning process does not really begin until after the body is in the ground. Traditionally, the seven days after an immediate family member dies is the most intense mourning period, and it's called a shiva. Every evening, a rabbi will come to the family's home and perform a short service, while friends and family bring food and moral support. Mourners are not supposed to leave the house, work, or do most normal activities during this time. The month after the first week is considered the period when mourners begin to gradually reenter their regular lives; however, Jews consider the mourning period to consist of one full year after the burial. After one year, there is a ceremony at the grave site in which the gravestone is unveiled, and Jews are supposed to light a candle every year to remember their deceased.

If a Jewish friend of yours has lost someone close to them and you wish to show your support, you should attend the burial ceremony if possible and bring food and moral support to their home during the first week of mourning.

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