Indeed, in many communities it is customary for those in attendance to line up and everyone places three spadefuls of dirt over the coffin after it is placed in the ground. There are less common customs for each person to place five or thirteen spadefuls. At some funerals an urn with sand is prepared and everyone drops three scoops into the grave, while in more traditional circles everyone uses a shovel and real dirt.

The three spadefuls of sand correspond to the three basic soul-levels, nefesh, ruach and neshamah. The five correspond to the three abovementioned soul-levels plus the two higher "transcendent" soul-levels: chayah and yechidah. (Click here for more information about these five soul-levels.) The thirteen are symbolic of the thirteen words in Psalm 78:38 – which are recited during the burial: "But He is merciful, He expiates iniquity and does not destroy; many times He takes back His wrath and does not arouse all His anger."

For more information regarding Jewish customs in death, burial and mourning, see our "From Life to Life" Death and Mourning section.

Rabbi Eliezer Posner