The Bible, in its mature wisdom, required burial to take place as soon as possible following death. It established this requirement by both a positive and a negative command. Positively, it stated, "Thou shalt surely bury him the same day." Negatively, it warned, "His body shall not remain all night" (Deuteronomy 21:23). Jewish law, therefore, demands that we bury the deceased within 24 hours following death.

The religious concept underlying this law is that man, made in the image of God, should be accorded the deepest respect. It is considered a matter of great shame and discourtesy to leave the deceased unburied—his soul has returned to God, but his body is left to linger in the land of the living. Even a Priest, on his way to enter the sanctuary on Yom Kippur, was commanded to render this honor of immediate burial even to a strange corpse, although he is normally forbidden to handle the remains. This is the proper honor that Jewish tradition accords those who die.

There is, secondarily, a psychological benefit to be derived from following the tradition. It becomes a matter of almost unbearable mental strain for the family to dwell for a long time in "the valley of the shadow of death." No one deserves to be subjected to the despair and anguish of being continually in the physical company of the deceased, no matter how deep his affection. As it is proper for the deceased to be buried without tarrying, so is it advisable for the family not to have to undergo the emotional pain of an unduly long delay.

Interring the dead may occasionally be delayed, but only for the honor of the dead. Thus, the rabbis allowed a delayed burial in the following cases:

  1. When the government requires delay, such as for the legal transportation of the body, or for the completion of forms and papers, or for post-mortem examinations which must be performed prior to burial.

  2. If delay is caused by having to wait for the delivery of shrouds or a proper casket.

  3. If close relatives have to come from great distances, and it is considered an honor to the deceased for these relatives to be present. There should be, however, no unduly long period of waiting such as the common misconception of the permissibility of waiting three days would imply. Also, the delay should be based not on arbitrary guesswork as to when "most" people will attend, but on definite knowledge of the time of the arrival of close relatives such as children or parents.

  4. If the eulogizing rabbi is delayed and the presence of this particular rabbi would be an honor to the deceased.

  5. Rather than to hold the funeral late on Friday afternoon, the funeral may be postponed until Sunday (because the Sabbath intervenes).

  6. On major festivals, Jewish law forbids Jews to inter their dead on the first day of the holiday, but permits non-Jews to perform the burial on that day. On the second day of such festivals it permits even Jews to do the burying, but other than the actual interment, no other violation of the sanctity of the day is permitted. Because conditions in contemporary society are such that funerals on either day of the festival invariably result in needless transgressions of the law, it is preferable to postpone the funeral until after both days of the holiday.

The best time to hold the funeral service is during the morning hours, and this for three reasons:

  1. It is proper to perform the mitzvah of burial with dispatch; the earlier the better.

  2. For practical reasons, most persons will be able to attend the service, and will then be able to return to their own affairs.

  3. It will leave time for those mourners living far from the cemetery to begin the mourning period before dark, and thus count this day as the first day of shiva. (This subject will be treated in greater detail later.)

The timing also depends on the Funeral Home. They must consider the scheduling of other funerals, and also must plan the time so as to avoid arriving at the cemetery during the lunch hour when cemetery employees frequently are not available. The family should consult the rabbi before a time has been established, so as to determine his availability.