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.