It is customary to wash one’s hands after participating in a funeral or visiting a cemetery.1

According to the letter of the law, it is sufficient to pour water once over each hand.2 However, the common custom is to wash each hand three times, alternating between the right and left hands.3

Additionally, some are of the opinion that washing is only necessary after a funeral if one came within four amot (approximately 6-7 feet) of the corpse.4 Nevertheless, many wash after a funeral regardless of how close they were to the deceased.5

Negative Spirit

The basic reason for this washing is that whenever holiness departs (in this case, the soul from the body), negative forces try to fill the void. The negative spirits that surround the dead person attach themselves specifically to a person’s hands since the hands are the part of the body that extends the most to the “outside.”6

We Didn’t Spill the Blood

Some explain that this handwashing alludes to the ritual handwashing done by village elders when a dead body was found outside city limits in B.7 After washing, the elders would say, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime].”8 Indeed, some have the custom to actually recite that verse while washing their hands.9

Some add the next verse as well: “‘Atone for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, O L‑rd, and lay not [the guilt of] innocent blood among your people Israel.’ And [so] the blood shall be atoned for them.”10

Purify Ourselves

Washing the hands also serves as a reminder to the living that they should go about their lives serving G‑d in a pure way.11

Remembering the Purifying Waters

Upon leaving a cemetery, some have the custom to uproot a bit of grass with earth and throw it behind them. Afterwards, they wash their hands. One reason for this is that it is in remembrance of the purifying ashes of the red heifer, which included the hyssop plant and was mixed with special water. Thus, the earth, grass and water symbolize these three elements.12

Additional Customs Regarding Washing After a Funeral

  • After washing following a funeral (but not when just visiting the cemetery), many have the custom to spill out the extra water in the washing cup and set it down overturned so that there is no water leftover. On a mystical level, we are “giving the water to the impure energies” so that they will be satiated and will not disturb us.13
  • Many have the custom not to dry their hands but rather let them dry on their own. This symbolizes the idea that we don’t want to forget this day of death—we are not eager to “wipe away” our thoughts of mourning and loss.14 (Some allow drying if the weather is cold.15)
  • Additionally, just like during burial when we don’t pass the shovel from one person to the next, so should one not pass the washing cup to the next person. Instead, it is set down (upside down) for the next person to take on his own.16
  • One reason for both of these customs is that since it is a time of pain and anguish, we don’t want to “pass” that pain onto another. Another reason is that when it comes to the day of death, we are all equal, and no one is greater than the other. Passing something directly to the next person can imply a certain disparity between the giver and the receiver.17
  • The custom is to wash one’s hands as soon as possible18 and not enter a house until the hands are washed.19

May we merit the day when G‑d “will swallow up death forever; and the L‑rd G‑d will wipe away tears from off all faces . . .”20