The funeral service is a brief and simple service designed primarily as yekara d'schichba--for the honor and dignity of the deceased. The worthy values he lived by, the good deeds he performed, and the noble aspects of his character are eulogized. The function of the eulogy is not to comfort the bereaved, although by highlighting the good and the beautiful in the life of the departed it affords an implicit consolation for the mourners.
There is also great psychological benefit from the funeral service itself although this, too, is not its primary purpose. It enables many friends and relatives to participate in the situation of bereavement and thus relieve the terrible loneliness of the mourners. In addition, since it not only praises the deceased, but also confronts all who attend with the terrible fact of their own mortality, it impels them to "consider their days," to take stock and live their lives creatively.
The service consists of a recitation of selected Psalms appropriate to the life of the deceased, a panegyric of his finer qualities which his survivors should seek to implant in their own lives, and a Memorial Prayer asking that God shelter his soul "on the wings of His Divine presence."
The most commonly recited Psalm at the funeral service is Psalm 23:
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He has me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside the still waters.
He revives my soul;
He guides me on paths of righteousness for His glory.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no harm,
For you are with me.
Your rod and your staff do comfort me.
You set a table in sight of my enemies;
You anoint my head with rich oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall abide in the house of the Lord for ever.
This Psalm expresses the most intimate, personal relationship of man with his beloved God. Troubles may abound, agony may strike the soul, but there is this one comforting thought--"the Lord is my Shepherd." As a shepherd seeks to guide and care for his flock, as he seeks fertile pastures in which his sheep may graze, as he always stays close to his flock and helps them grow and develop, as he lovingly embraces and raises up the sheep who have been injured, so does God, the Divine Shepherd, watch over His flock. We, the members of the flock, may sometimes, in our despair, doubt the justice of the Shepherd; we may not understand His ways, but we are confident that He is concerned with our welfare.
"He has me lie down in green pastures: He leads me beside the still waters." And so, even if sometimes, as is inevitable, "I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me: Your rod and Your staff do comfort me." For I know that the rod of the Shepherd seeks to guide me, however strange that path may seem to be, however puzzled I may be by the evil that has befallen me. My faith in the Divine Shepherd gives me the confidence to proclaim, "Only goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall abide in the house of the Lord forever."
What is Man?
Also recited at most funeral services is "What Is Man," consisting of verses from various Psalms.
"0 Lord, what is man that You regard him, or the son of man that You take account of him? Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow. You sweep men away. They are like a dream; like grass which is renewed in the morning. In the morning it flourishes and grows, but in the evening it fades and withers. The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of special strength fourscore; yet their pride is but toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and we fly away. So teach us to treasure our days that we may get a wise heart. Observe the good man, and behold the upright, for there is immortality for the man of peace. Surely God will ransom my soul from the grave; He will gladly accept me. The Lord redeems the souls of His servants; none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned. The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it."
What is expressed here is despair over the brevity of man's life. It asks: "What can be the significance of a life that withers so quickly?" But faith informs us that, nonetheless, there is a God who guides us. Observe the good man! God will care for the upright in heart. He shall ascend the mountain of the Lord.
Other Psalms or selections from the Book of Proverbs are chosen by the rabbi for appropriate occasions and for different personal qualities of the deceased. Frequently, "A Woman Of Valor" is read for a kind and gracious lady. Other selections are chosen for a person who died at a young age.
The Memorial Prayer - Kel Maleh Rachamim
The Memorial Prayer is a beautiful one. It has been chanted in the same way for many years.
For a male:
"O G‑d, full of compassion, Thou who dwellest on high! Grant perfect rest beneath the sheltering wings of Thy presence, among the holy and pure who shine as the brightness on the heavens, unto the soul of ____________ the son of ____________ who has gone unto eternity, and in whose memory charity is offered. May his repose be in paradise. May the Lord of Mercy bring him under the cover of His wings forever, and may his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. May the Lord be his possession, and may he rest in peace. Amen."
For a female:
"O God, full of compassion, Thou who dwellest on high! Grant perfect rest beneath the sheltering wings of Thy presence, among the holy and pure who shine as the brightness on the heavens, unto the soul of ____________ the daughter of ____________ who has gone unto eternity, and in whose memory charity is offered. May her repose be in paradise. May the Lord of Mercy bring her under the cover of His wings forever, and may her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. May the Lord be her possession, and may she rest in peace. Amen."
The prayer is self-explanatory. Unlike the Kaddish, this is a prayer on behalf of the dead. While it is not technically to be considered a lament, custom dictates that it should not be chanted on days that Tachanun is not recited in the synagogue.
For this prayer you will have to know the Hebrew name of the deceased and the deceased's father. If these names are not available, the English names are used.
The eulogy is a significant focus of the funeral service. One of the most important obligations of mourners and heirs is to provide for this eulogy. Abraham, the first patriarch of the Jewish people, eulogized his wife Sarah, and that has been the custom of Jews to this day.
Purpose of the Eulogy: Following the lesson of Abraham, the purpose of the eulogy is twofold. First is hesped–the praising of the deceased for his worthy qualities. Second is bechi–expressing the grief and the sense of loss experienced by the mourners and the entire Jewish community.
Very wisely, the Jewish tradition requires the eulogizing of the deceased to be kara'ui, balanced and appropriate. It may not grossly exaggerate, or invent, qualities that the deceased did not in fact possess. Such praise is a mockery and an effrontery to the departed, rather than a tribute to his personal virtues.
At the same time, the mourners should remember that although the deceased may have been undistinguished in many ways, and lacking certain moral qualities, there is always a substratum of goodness and decency in all men which can be detected if properly sought. Sometimes, the mourners are too close to their departed and see only mediocrity and perhaps meanness. But sometimes a more objective view reveals virtues unknown or latent: honesty or frankness or humaneness or respect or tolerance, or simply the ability to raise decent children in a violent and unstable world.
When Is the Eulogy Delivered?
The eulogy is almost always delivered at the chapel, at the home, or occasionally at the cemetery prior to burial. For outstanding scholars or community leaders, it may be delivered during shiva or on the thirtieth day after the funeral.
Eulogies generally are not delivered if the funeral occurs during the major festivals of Passover, Shavuot, or Succot, or during other holidays such as Hannukah, Purim, or Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month), or on afternoons immediately preceding these holidays, or on Friday afternoons, or on days immediately following the three major festivals (Passover, Shavuot, or Succot). The reason for this is that although the funeral is an occasion of grief for the family of the deceased, the joyous spirit of the holiday which is required of the entire community overrides the obligation and desire for lamentation by individuals. However, while bechi, the bewailing aspect of the eulogy, contradicts the spirit of the holiday, hesped, if done in the correct manner, often does not; hence it is on occasion permitted to deliver a very short eulogy emphasizing only the praise of the deceased, and encouraging the relatives to incorporate these qualities into their own lives.
Eulogies should not be made if this was a specific request of the deceased. Because the eulogy is yekara d'schichba, for the honor of the dead rather than for the survivors, an individual may elect to forego the honor. However, the mourners should not take this decision upon themselves if they merely conjecture that this is what the deceased would have wanted. Most people deserve a eulogy and should not be deprived of it because of speculation, although the conjecture may have been made in good faith.
Rituals of a Fraternal Order
A secular ceremony is out of place during a religious service. However, a non-sectarian burial program of a fraternal order which is designed solely to honor the deceased and is accomplished only by kind words from friends may take place. This ceremony should take place only if it was the sincere and express desire of the deceased. The family should ascertain that there are no christological elements in the service, such as the "Lord's Prayer." Even though this prayer contains no specific mention of Christianity, its source is the Christian Bible, and it is out of place at a Jewish funeral. Care should be taken that there be no physical contact with the body, and that this ceremony take place before, not after, the religious service. It should be brief and unostentatious.
The recessional, performed by wheeling the casket from the chapel to the hearse, should be attended to by members of the Jewish faith.
Escorting the Deceased to the Cemetery
The profound significance of this aspect of the funeral is generally not appreciated. The sages considered the preparing and escorting of the deceased to his final resting place an extremely important symbol of respect. They refer to it as gemillat chesed shel emet, an act of genuine, selfless kindness. They insisted, as they did in few other instances, that a man should interrupt even the study of Torah to assist in removing the deceased from his home and conveying him to the cemetery. The sages of the Talmud declared that one who sees a funeral procession and does not accompany the dead–at least briefly–deserves to be banished from the community.
The Obligation of Preparing the Body and Escorting It
When no other Jews are available to care for the deceased, the dead person is considered technically a met mitzvah, an abandoned corpse, which places the obligation for burial upon the first Jew who finds it. Even the High Priest in ancient times who was not otherwise permitted to handle a strange corpse was under full obligation to bury the deserted dead. Thus, when no other Jews are available, one must sacrifice even very important work, or the study of Torah and the performance of other religious duties, and certainly other pleasurable activities, to help prepare the body for burial, and also to accompany the deceased to the grave and bury it. There is no difference as to whether or not one is related to or acquainted with the departed.
When other Jews are available for preparing the body but one is not sure whether there will be a minyan to accompany the deceased to the cemetery (or a respectable representation for the scholar and community leader), there is no requirement to cease working or studying during the period of preparation. However, there is an obligation to escort the departed to the cemetery even if this means sacrificing time from work.
When other Jews are available both to prepare and accompany the body, and one is not studying Torah or doing required and important work, one should escort the deceased to the cemetery at least symbolically by walking in the direction of the hearse some six or eight feet to indicate respect for the deceased and sympathy for the mourners. It does not matter whether or not one knew the departed. There is an obligation of respect for all Jews.
When other Jews are available for preparing and escorting the body, and one is involved in urgent business or studying Torah, it is sufficient to stand in respect as the procession passes.
When pressed for time, the priorities for attendance, in order of their importance, are:
a. Attend the service and then, briefly, follow the hearse.
b. Be present at the cemetery during the actual burial.
c. Visit during the Shiva mourning period.
Visitation in a chapel before the service is not a Jewish custom, as indicated previously, and should not be practiced.
For a child less than 30 days of age, attendants for the funeral procession are not required. A minimum of three people in attendance at the cemetery is sufficient.
Who Should Attend the Funeral?
May a Divorced Mate Attend Funeral Services?
There is no Jewish legal requirement that a divorced person must attend a former mate's funeral service, but it is certainly not prohibited. For one contemplating divorce, obligations for mourning depend on whether there was agreement to proceed with the divorce. If only one mate contemplated divorce, and no legal action had been taken, there is an obligation to mourn. If both agreed to the divorce, although no action was taken, there is no positive requirement to mourn according to Jewish law.
Should Bride and Groom Attend Funeral Services?
A bride and groom during the first seven days after their wedding are not required to attend any funerals at all, even for their parents, if they are honeymooning away from home. If they already returned to their work, however, they must attend the funerals of their close relatives. (There are seven relationships that are considered "close": father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, and husband/wife.) They may attend funerals of other acquaintances.
Should Mourners Attend Funeral Services?
Mourners, within the first three days after the interment, should not attend another funeral unless it is for one of their close relatives (father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, and husband/wife) or for one who has no Jewish attendants escorting him. They should not, however, escort the dead to the cemetery.
After the third day and until the end of Shiva, the mourner may attend the funeral for another members of the family even if the deceased is not one of the seven "close" relatives. He should accompany the hearse for six or eight feet and then return home, but not go to the cemetery.
Accompanying the Non-Jewish Deceased
One may accompany the gentile dead to the cemetery. If his absence would be noted, and it might be considered disrespectful, one should also attend the ceremony at the interment. While one should not, by any means, be discourteous in these matters, one may not participate in the Mass or other religious service held at the chapel. No intelligent gentile would quarrel, or even question, a friend's religious scruples. We are living in an age of understanding and tolerance, and people of diverse creeds need not sacrifice their religious conscience for fear of being misunderstood.