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What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral

What to Expect at a Jewish Funeral

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Photos: Flash90
Photos: Flash90

Chances are that you are reading this because you just got the news. Someone has passed away, and you are going to attend a Jewish funeral. First, I would like to express my condolences. Every death is sad, and while the soul lives forever, its departure from the body is a deeply painful event on so many levels.

Attending a funeral can be intimidating, whether this is your first time attending or you have been to many funerals. What do I do? What do I say? The truth is that there is very little for you to do, and instructions areWhat do I do? What do I say? usually given when they are required. When in doubt, you can just take your cue from the people around you.

If you are still deciding whether or not to attend, it is almost always better to go. Accompanying the departed on their final journey is one of the greatest acts of kindness you can ever do. As sad and difficult as it may be, the importance of attending funerals cannot be overstated—for the dead and for the living.

Here is a brief guide to the main elements of virtually all Jewish funerals:

First Things First

The funeral may begin at a funeral home and then proceed to the cemetery, or services may be held only at the cemetery.

Before heading out, make sure you are dressed appropriately and respectfully. For men, this can mean wearing a suit or a nice pair of slacks and a button-down shirt. For women, a modest skirt and top or a dress is perfect. Men, make sure that your head is covered. As you enter the funeral home or cemetery, there may be a basket of of kippahs (skullcaps) at the door.

Make sure that you come on time and that your phone is off.

It can be awkward and inappropriate to try to make small talk with your bereaved friends at this time. You really don’t need to say much. Follow their lead. The main thing is that you are there for them. Instead of chatting with your neighbor about the weather, it is appropriate to recite Psalms. Many funeral homes have books of Psalms available for your use.

As a sign of mourning, the immediate mourners (spouse, parents, siblings and children) perform keriya, tearing their clothing over the chest—for example, a collar, pocket or lapel. The torn garment will be worn by the children of the deceased for the duration of the weeklong shivah mourning period.

The Service

You may notice that the casket remains closed. In Jewish tradition, it is not considered proper to gaze at the dead.

Once everyone has arrived, the funeral typically begins with the hesped, or eulogy. Friends, relatives and others eulogize the departed, sharing fond memories and speaking about the special qualities of the deceased. (Note that the Chabad custom is to not eulogize, lest we come to exaggerate the good qualities of the departed, so the funeral service is very brief.)

After a few brief prayers, the next observance of the day is levaya, accompanying the dead to his or her final resting place. This element of the funeral is so important that the entire funeral is called a “levaya” (“accompaniment” in Hebrew). Make sure to accompany the casket for at least four cubits (six feet).

At the Cemetery

Upon arrival at the cemetery, the funeral continues with interment, kevurah, during which we return the dead to the nourishing and living earth from which Adam, the first man, was formed. It is considered an honor to participate in the burial by taking a turn to shovel soil onto the coffin.

You will notice that it is customary not to pass the shovel. Rather, when one person is finished, he will stick the shovel into the dirt, and the next person will take it from there.

Perhaps the most famous prayer in Judaism is the Kaddish recited by mourners. The surviving relatives bring solace to the soul of their loved one when they publicly praise G‑d. In this age-old Aramaic prayer, we express our wish for the manifestation of G‑d’s sovereignty on earth. (The version said at the funeral has a few added lines which express anticipation of the arrival of Moshiach and the Resurrection of the Dead.)

After we have honored the departed, we now turn our attention to the mourners, performing the mitzvah of nichum avelim, comforting the bereaved. Those who are assembled form a line, and as the mourners pass by, we say, “Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shaar avelay Tziyon v’Yerushalayim,” “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Closing Moments

As the crowd disperses, you may hear people saying to each other that they hope to meet next “oyf simches,” at happy occasions.

It is customary to wash your hands before entering your home

After leaving the funeral, it is customary to wash your hands before entering your home. Many funeral homes and cemeteries have faucets and cups immediately outside the cemetery. Pour water on each hand, alternating between right and left, three times. Like the shovel, the washing cup is not passed from one person directly to another. Rather, when you are finished, you place it upside down and let the water run out, and the next person will pick it up. It is customary not to dry your hands after this washing.

For the next six days, the mourners will be sitting shivah. That will be your time to offer comfort and condolences. To learn more about the shivah, see What to Expect at a Shivah Home.

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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Brian Bricker Chicago November 3, 2017

One can always expect a thorough explanation from Chabad writers. Thank you. Reply

Jacqueline Thomas Wivenhoe November 3, 2017

Thank you for your guidance. My oldest friend's mother has passed away. As she was always so kind to me, I owe her the kindness of attending her funeral snd your words here will help me to support my friend. I have one question, should I wear black?
. Reply

Menachem Posner November 3, 2017
in response to Jacqueline Thomas:

You don't need to wear black. Reply

Linda Schneider Ferndale Michigan October 21, 2017

Thank you for giving clear directions for the proper way of attending the funeral of a dear friend. This is the 1st Jewish funeral that I will be attending. We do want to honor our friend and his family with the traditions that will give comfort to them. Shalome Reply

Sonya Keizer August 2, 2017

Thank you for this information.
Our sons is preparing to marry a young lady whose father is Jewish.
He grandmother is in her final days and we want to prepare Samuel to honor his new family well during this time.
I appreciate the explanation of the shovel and the washing especially.
Thank you again for making this so thorough and easy.

Sonya Reply

Crystal Jamaica NY July 23, 2017

Thank you for this information as I have a funeral to attend tomorrow for my friend/coworker. Reply

Joan Glaser-Powers West Babylon July 23, 2017

Thank you for the explanation of each part of the Jewish Funeral Service. Your explanations were easy to understand. My husband I are very grateful that we understand the funeral service much better. I am so happy that you indicated what we should wear.

Thank you! You made it easier for me to get ready for the service.

Sincerely,

Joan Reply

Laurie Steinke Charleston July 2, 2017

Thank you for this thoughtfully laid-out description of protocol. Reply

Gary Counterman Toledo, Ohio June 27, 2017

I'm reading this after attending the funeral of my dear friends mother. I was touched by the simplicity of the funeral and by the way it was so personal. What also made such an impression was how the family and others attending are participants in the service and especially the burial at the cemetery. You're faced with the very real fact that your loved one has passed on and that you are doing the last earthly tasks possible for them. Seeing an open grave, the soil piled next to it, no vault to shield the simple wooden casket, no fake grass to hide anything, shovels and gravemen very nearby. But participating in shoveling earth onto the casket and into the grave leaves no doubt that this person you loved is now gone. Sad as it is I believe the reality of it is important to the process of grieving, acceptance and of eventually being able to move beyond it with life. I found it all more genuine and much less steralized and far less falsely beautiful than traditional American funerals. Reply

Ann Chatterton Clifton Park, N.Y June 11, 2017

This is a great help. My dear neighbor died last night and I want to attend the family and funeral.
Now I can. I will print this out. Reply

John R Richardson Peterborough April 1, 2017

Funeral yarmulke Is there a particular type of kippot to be worn at a funeral. And are colours other than black acceptable? Reply

Chabad.org Staff April 3, 2017
in response to John R Richardson:

Wearing black at a funeral is not necessarily a Jewish custom so technically one can wear a kippah that is not black. Reply

John R Richardson Peterborough April 3, 2017
in response to Chabad.org Staff:

Thank you for your rapid response to my query.
That has put my mind at rest.
Shalom Reply

Amy Florida January 18, 2017

Thank you. This was very helpful, and kindly written. Reply

Scott December 10, 2016

How beautiful. Thank you Reply

Menachem Posner chicago November 3, 2016

To Brian Bricker Opting for cremation is outside of Jewish tradition. As such, there is no established protocol. If it is not too late, I urge you to do your utmost to help prevent cremation. This is seen as a terribly tragedy that brings immense suffering to the soul of the departed. Reply

Brian Bricker Chicago November 3, 2016

Cremains Is their a different protocol when the deceased h as been cremated? Reply

Karl Gwinnett Marple September 27, 2016

thank you for this information, I want to show the greatest of respect at this funeral but also, not to have people directing me at a time when they have more important things to do. Reply

Renee Buffalo NY May 22, 2016

Thank you for the advice and the knowledge.... Reply

Capraros pa April 16, 2016

This information is very helpful to a non Jewish person who is attending in respect of the deceased and for being there in support of his wife, children and grandchildren.
Thank you so much and God's Peace be with you. Reply

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