A Jewish funeral is distinguished by its simplicity, humility, and solemnity. Its general format has not changed for over four thousand years. It is usually held within 24 hours of passing, but no later than three days. The mitzva of accompanying the dead to the final resting place is so great it supersedes all other mitzvot, including Torah study. However, before the funeral can take place, the body of the deceased must be prepared for burial in accordance with Jewish tradition.
It is a moral obligation for those caring for the deceased to ensure that the proper preparation is carried out. If one has contracted with a funeral home, one should make sure that the funeral director and the staff know that the family wants a traditional Jewish funeral, with all that it entails (see below).
A Historical Overview
Since Biblical times, specially trained members of the community called the Chevra Kaddisha (lit. "the holy brotherhood"), or Jewish Burial Society, prepared the body of the deceased for burial. Following this, the funeral procession proceeded from the home of the deceased to the cemetery. Pallbearers would include close friends, and in the case of a great sage or leader, students.
The entire community stopped what they were doing and joined the funeral procession. This was especially true in the case of a Met Mitzva, a person who had died with no family to ensure a proper Jewish burial.
The funeral procession paused near the gravesite, Psalms were recited, and the officiating rabbi eulogized the deceased. This was followed by the performance of the Kriah by the mourners (the traditional rending of the outer garments). At that point the deceased was placed in the grave and men of the community covered the grave with earth. After the grave was filled in, the mourners recited the Kaddish (a prayer sanctifying G-d) and then retired to the home of the deceased, where the family would observe the Shiva (the first seven-day period of mourning).
The general format of the Jewish funeral as outlined above has been observed by Jewish communities in all parts of the world throughout our long history. Variations are limited to the use of a casket or not (i.e. in Israel, the deceased is buried without a casket), the recitation of certain Psalms or prayers, and the delivery of eulogies. But the main components as outlined above have remained the same.
The Components of a Jewish Funeral
Tahara (Ritual washing of the body): Before the funeral, the body of the deceased is prepared for burial by the Chevra Kaddisha in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. This includes ritually washing and dressing the deceased while certain prayers are recited, and placing the body in a kosher casket. Men attend to men, and women to women.
Kriah (Rending of one's garments): During the funeral service, the mourners recite a blessing and rend their garments in expression of grief. This includes one who lost a father, mother, spouse, son, daughter, brother, and sister.
Kavod (Paying Respects) - Accompanying the casket to its final resting place: This includes gathering at the funeral home or chapel, or at the gravesite prior to the burial, in order to recite Psalms and to speak of the merits of the deceased.
Kevurah (Burial) - Burial in a Jewish cemetery: This includes the recitation of Kaddish and other prayers by the mourners.
Nechama (Condolence): Before leaving the gravesite, all present form a pathway comprised of rows through which the mourners will walk as they leave the gravesite. As they pass, the congregation console the mourners.