Jewish Funeral and Mourning Customs
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Core Jewish funeral customs have remained the same for thousands of years. The central concept of a traditional Jewish funeral is Kavod HaMet - respect for the dignity of the dead. This is the primary reason why traditional Jewish funerals take place soon after the death occurs. However, it is acceptable to delay a funeral briefly if there is close family that must travel from out of town to attend the funeral service.
Jewish funeral customs do vary and the customs depend upon the family's level of observance. However, what does remain constant and paramount to all Jewish funerals is the requirement of Kavod HaMet, dignity and respect for the deceased at all times.
Jewish law states that a person should not be left unattended prior to burial. Sol Levinson & Bros. arranges for a shomer (watchman) to be in the building when the rest of the staff is not present. Some families prefer to have a specific person remain with the deceased at all times from the time of death to the time of the funeral service. The shomer can be a family member or a Jewish individual that is engaged by us to stay with the deceased. This person reads psalms (tehillim) as they sit with the deceased. These psalms are read until the funeral service begins.
Taharah and Dressing
While some families choose to have their loved one dressed in their own clothing, a component of the traditional Jewish funeral is the ritual of taharah. This is a ritual cleansing ceremony at which the deceased is purified and then dressed for burial in traditional white burial garments (tachrichim). This process is performed by a group of religious individuals - either male or female, accordingly - that are part of a holy burial society called the chevra kadisha.
Prior to the funeral service, family and friends will offer their condolences to the immediate family members. Also before the service, the rabbi or cantor officiating will have the immediate family make a tear in their clothing called kriah (rending of the garment). Kriah is meant to be seen as an outward symbol of grief. Orthodox families will cut their clothing, but many families will make a tear in a black ribbon provided by Sol Levinson & Bros. The torn garment or ribbon is worn during the shiva period, except on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays. At a traditional funeral service in one of our chapels, the officiating clergy will offer a eulogy, and possibly have other family members offer brief remarks about the deceased. The Jewish memorial prayer, the El Maleh Rachamim, is recited towards the conclusion of the service.
The next step in the Jewish funeral process is the burial (K’vurah). Once the casket is lowered into the grave, earth is placed in the grave to cover the casket. This is considered an especially important mitzvah (commandment) because the person you are helping can never return the favor. A rabbi will discuss the options for filling in the grave with each family, as customs may vary. Then, the rabbi or cantor and the immediate family members will recite the mourner’s kaddish.
Following the burial, also known as interment, the family will often sit shiva. Shiva, the Hebrew word for seven, refers to the first seven days of mourning including the day of the funeral. Those considered obligated to observe the mourning rituals are spouses, children, parents or siblings of the deceased. Mourning customs are not observed on the Sabbath or religious holidays. When the funeral takes place prior to a Jewish holiday and the mourners have observed Shiva for at least one hour before the holiday begins, then the period of Shiva ends with the start of the holiday at sunset. A child under thirteen years of age is not obligated to observe the mourning rituals.
Please see our page on Shiva Set-up for information on how to set up a shiva house. There is a custom to rinse one's hands with water before entering the Shiva house. Typically, a friend or relative will arrange to have a pitcher of water outside of the house prior to the family returning from the cemetery.
A seven-day candle, provided by Sol Levinson & Bros. should be lit upon returning from the cemetery. The Shiva candle is kept burning in the house during the entire seven days. Mourners typically avoid forms of entertainment, such as television, during the week. It is traditional for mourners to remain at home, sitting on a low seat, wearing slippers rather than leather shoes, and refraining from transacting any business. The custom of covering mirrors in the Shiva house has been interpreted as a symbol of avoiding excessive self concern.
People visit the Shiva house to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of comforting the mourners. You may enter the Shiva house without knocking. Mourners typically do not greet friends at the door. It is traditional to hold services at a house of mourning. Sol Levinson & Bros. provides prayer books, yarmulkes, mourners chairs, and seating for guests to be used for services.
The family will arrange Shiva service times with the Rabbi, which will be announced at the conclusion of the service. Time your visit to the Shiva house appropriately. Your presence and participation is appreciated during Shiva services, but always remain mindful of the family's need for private time, i.e. meals.
There are no words to take away grief, it is best to simply listen. Your presence and acceptance is often more important than mere words. However, sharing memories and stories of the deceased may help bring comfort to the family.
Sheloshim (First thirty days)
The secondary period of mourning is called Sheloshim, which includes the first thirty days after the funeral. During the period of Sheloshim, mourners should avoid participating in any festivity or amusement. If the deceased is a parent, this period may extend longer. Mourners resume normal social and professional duties but are still restricted in certain ways. Activity restrictions depend on the preference of each mourner. Please consult your rabbi for guidance.
The unveiling is the formal dedication of the headstone. It is customary for the unveiling to take place 12 months after the funeral as a way to mark the end of the formal mourning period. However, the unveiling may take place any time after Sheloshim (30 days).
Jewish law requires that a grave be marked, but the type of marking and the headstone are not specified. Please contact your rabbi, cemetery and monument company in advance to arrange for a proper unveiling.
Click here for a print-friendly version of suggested prayers and readings, where instructions for an Unveiling service can be found. You are also welcome to come in and pick up our Prayers of Comfort books. For further details your rabbi should be consulted.
The Yahrzeit commemorates the anniversary of the date of death and is observed annually, in accordance with the Hebrew calendar. Sol Levinson & Bros. provides 20 year Yahrzeit calendars to all families at the time of the service. Additional calendars are made available upon request and can be generated directly from our website. Yahrzeit Calendar
The Yahrzeit commences on the preceding day at sunset and is concluded on the anniversary day of death at sunset. During the Yahrzeit, a candle may be lit to burn for one day. Special Yahrzeit candles are often available in the Kosher section of your local supermarket. Mourner’s Kaddish is recited in the synagogue during services, and contributions to a charity in memory of a loved one are often made on the occasion of a Yahrzeit.
The memorial prayer of Yizkor is recited four times a year at synagogue services, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot. Please consult your local synagogue for information on dates and times, as practices for length of holiday observance vary between denominations. Yizkor Dates