The Jewish Funeral service is a starkly simple, but emotionally meaningful, farewell to the deceased. The service does not attempt to comfort the mourners. The Sages wisely noted that it is sheer mockery to comfort the bereaved while their beloved lies dead before their eyes. Moreover, it is psychologically futile to effect a reconciliation between the mourner and his fate at this time.
The service is directed, rather, at honoring the departed. The tribute to him takes the form of the recitation of a eulogy; chanting of several Psalms and the Memorial Prayer; following the casket and accompanying the deceased to his final resting place; speaking only well of him; and many other small ways in which each individual pays his own heartfelt respect.
In order to render the proper homage to the deceased, tradition serves as a wise and able instructor. The cumulative wisdom of the Jewish people's experience with grief for over 3,000 years is distilled in the laws and customs pertaining to this area of life. The following pages offer the most important details of these traditions, and some of the wise principles underlying them.
Location of the Service
From the days of the Second Temple until modern times, funeral services have taken place in either the home of the deceased or at the cemetery. The Talmud indicates that the service of farewell took place in one of these two places, most often in the home.
The use of the synagogue for such occasions was rare. When the service was held at the local synagogue or religious school it was only so that the entire community might pay honor to an exceptional person. In modern times, the funeral chapel is almost always used. The chapel provides a dignified setting, is able to accommodate many people, and is, therefore, to be encouraged in most instances.
There are occasions, however, when one or another of these four choices-home, synagogue, chapel or cemetery--preferable, depending upon the family's decision. It should be noted that the holding of funeral services within the precincts of the synagogue sanctuary is very rare. It is done only for those who, like Rabbi Judah the Prince, are scrupulously observant, great Torah scholars, and noted leaders in communal activities. Respect may be rendered those who are deserving, although they may fall somewhat short of this ideal person, by taking the hearse to the cemetery via the synagogue, and pausing in front of the synagogue. The rear door of the hearse is opened, the cantor chants the memorial prayer in honor of the deceased, and then the cortege continues to the cemetery.
If there is no Jewish chapel available, then the community should set aside some room in the local synagogue for such occasions. The vestry or auditorium is the most appropriate place to hold such services. If this facility is not available, then the home should be used. If this too is impossible, the cemetery should be the place for the eulogy and prayers. In inclement weather, when there is no other place for the funeral, a hospital auditorium or a non-sectarian chapel, with all religious symbols removed, may be used.