"Earth you are, and to earth you will return," were G‑d's words to Adam, the first human being (Genesis 3:19). In the words of King Solomon, "And the earth returns to the land as it was, and the spirit returns to G‑d, who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The next stage in the continuing saga of a human life is that the body should return to the earth, the source of all physical life, and be reunited with it, just as the soul returns to its divine root.

Indeed, these two "returns" are coupled. The earth is the source of physical life because G‑d's essence resides within it in a deeply hidden but profoundly real way. The natural decomposition of the body into the earth allows the expeditious return of the soul to its source.

It is therefore of utmost importance to preserve the integrity of the body, and to allow the burial to occur as soon as possible. The in-between state is most difficult for the soul, as it has no body with which to relate to our world, and neither is it free of its tenuous bonds to our world to see things from the purely spiritual perspective. The body's "returning to the earth" is directly commensurate with the soul's ability to return to the supernal Source from which it is drawn.

Interment in the earth is also integral to the process of the techiat ha-meitim, the future resurrection of the dead. As the first human being was initially formed from the earth, so, too, when the dead are brought back to life in the World to Come, their bodies will be re-formed from the earth in which they have been interred.

Two important steps precede the actual burial: a) the Taharah ("purification"); b) the funeral (called the Levayah).

The Taharah is a ritual cleansing process in which the body is cleaned and groomed, and water is ritually poured over it. In life, water is the source of all our nourishment; spiritually, too, water also has this unique property. At various stages in our lifetime (e.g., before marriage, after giving birth), we immerse in a mikveh to achieve ritual purity; so, too, is the body ritually purified in preparation for this next phase of its existence. With the taharah we acknowledge with dignity the life that resonated within this body and still leaves its trace on it —forever. After the purification, the deceased is dressed in special white clothes (called tachrichim), signifying purity and holiness.

On the most basic level, the Levayah ("accompaniment"--the funeral procession), in which we accompany the body to its resting place, is a show of respect to the deceased. The Hebrew word levayah also indicates "joining" and "bonding." Even as we mourn a soul's departure from manifest connection with our own physical existence, we understand that what binds our souls together—the fundamental Divine essence that all souls share—is far more powerful than the changes wrought by death. We and the deceased remain bonded—living souls all. By participating in the levayah we provide comfort to the soul as it undergoes this very difficult transition from one life to another, as the presence of our souls emphasizes the bonds that transcend this change.

I. Preparing the Body and Making the Funeral Arrangements:

  1. The Jewish Way—Interment in the Earth. Jewish law is unequivocal in its insistence that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth, in a way that allows for the natural process of its decomposition and re-integration with its primordial source—the soil of which it was formed. It also insists that in the interim between death and interment, the integrity and dignity of the body be respected and preserved. Thus Torah law forbids embalming the body (which involves disposing much of the body's innards and "re-making" its hollowed-out shell), displaying it (a vulgar affront to its dignity and privacy) or cremating it (which prematurely and violently destroys it). Autopsies, which violate the body's integrity and almost always result in parts of it not achieving proper burial, are likewise forbidden, except in extreme circumstances (a qualified rabbi should be consulted in such cases).

  2. The Chevra Kadisha. Every Jewish community has a Chevra Kadishah--lit., "Holy Society"--of dedicated men and women who are committed to ensuring that every Jew who passes on is accorded a proper Jewish burial. The preparation and interment of the body should be entrusted to the local Chevra Kadishah. They will conduct the Taharah (cleansing of the body), dress the deceased in the tachrichim, and otherwise ensure that the burial is conducted in accordance with Jewish tradition.

  3. Jewish Burial. A Jew should be buried only among fellow Jews, in a Jewish cemetery. Jewish tradition regards it as a matter of great importance that only fellow Jews should handle the body of a deceased Jew, carry (or wheel) the casket, place the casket in the earth and fill in the grave. Every possible effort should be made that this indeed be the case.

II. Basic Components of the Funeral Service:

  1. Rending of the Garments ("Keriah"). First-degree relatives (i.e., the children, siblings, spouse and parents of the deceased) are obligated to express their pain and sorrow by tearing their clothes over their hearts. This is usually done at the beginning of the funeral service. (Alternatively, some communities have the custom to perform the keriah immediately following the death, or upon the interment in the grave.)

  2. The Eulogy ("Hesped") involves: a) speaking of the good that the deceased was and did, so we should feel the extent of our loss; and b) "let the living take to heart" (Ecclesiastes 7:2)--the lessons we should learn from the deceased and emulate in our lives. These words may be spoken by the officiating rabbi and/or anyone who knew the person.

  3. Escorting the Deceased ("Lavayah"). Traditionally the coffin or bier was carried on the shoulders all the way to the cemetery. The family and community would follow in a procession to accord honor and comfort to the deceased. Nowadays, the long distance to burial places usually precludes this, but it is still important to walk behind the coffin some distance—either before the hearse leaves for the cemetery, or at the cemetery when the coffin is carried from the hearse to the gravesite—thereby fulfilling the important mitzvah of halvayat ha-met, "escorting the deceased."

  4. The Burial ("Kevurah"). We return the body to the earth that is its source. This is our final act of caring, and it is considered a great mitzvah to physically participate in the burial. Ideally, the whole grave should be filled in, by hand, by fellow Jews. Where this is not possible, at least the coffin should be completely covered with earth. At this point, Tzidduk Hadin is recited—a series of verses acknowledging G‑d's just ways even as we confront tragedy. We then recite the Kaddish and the El Malei Rachamim memorial prayer. (Click here for the texts of Tzidduk Hadin, the Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim)

  5. Comforting the Mourners. We begin the mourning process and the extending of comfort to the mourners immediately after the burial, while still in the cemetery. Those attending the burial form two parallel lines, and the mourners, who by now have removed their leather shoes, pass through this embracing community. Those standing in the lines speak the traditional words of comfort: Hamakom yenacheim etchem betoch shaar avelei tziyon v'yerushalayim--"May the Almighty comfort you among all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." The mourning then moves to the locale that is chosen for the seven day Shivah mourning period. (The further stages of mourning are discussed in the following section, Shivah and Mourning)