The following is our Jewish guide for the rituals and customs surrounding death and mourning. It is precisely at times of loss and emptiness that we depend on our religious tradition, our faith and our community to help us get through. The synagogue and clergy are always here to comfort and support you in these difficult times and we hope this reference guide will help answer some of your practical and traditional questions concerning a Jewish funeral.
Upon learning of a family member’s death… whether your loved one has died at home or in the hospital, in town or out of town, the first thing you should do is to make the following two phone calls:
Regardless of which funeral home you use, please do not set a day or time for the funeral without consulting your B’nai Israel clergy.
Jewish tradition urges us to arrange for burial as soon as possible. In essence, this teaches us that while the funeral need not take place on the day of death, or even the day following death, it should not be delayed much longer than three days, unless in exceptional circumstances (such as close family traveling from far away). Funeral services are not held on Shabbat (late Friday afternoon through Saturday night), on the first and last days of the Festivals, or on the High Holy Days.
The sanctuary or chapel at Congregation B’nai Israel is available for members of the congregation who have died. You also may arrange to use the chapel at the funeral home, or hold the service graveside at the cemetery.
Either of the Rabbis or the Cantor is available to officiate at a service for a member or immediate family of a member. At your request, the officiating clergyperson may invite the participation of other clergy.
Although there may be no arrangements to make with B’nai Israel, please contact us as soon as possible so that our clergy may reach out to you. Even if you are across the country, it can be comforting to receive a phone call from your Rabbis or Cantor. We will also place the name of the deceased on the Kaddish list and ensure that the community is aware of your loss.
In general, spend time at home with close friends and loved ones. Avoid social gatherings, if at all possible. The clergyperson who is to officiate at the funeral will arrange to visit with you prior to the funeral service. This visit serves several functions: to bring comfort, to provide advice as may be needed, to acquaint you with the nature of the service, and to answer any questions pertaining to Jewish ritual. You should gather together for this meeting as many family members and relatives as you are able. The Rabbis or Cantor will want to obtain from you information about the life and times you shared with the person who has died, as well as information about his/her interests and passions. This will help them in preparing an appropriate eulogy and funeral tribute.
Our clergy do not accept payment for funerals from members of the congregation. Some wish to donate to Tzedakah as part of the mourning ritual or in the name of deceased, and the Rabbis discretionary fund, the Music fund or other Tzedakah projects at the synagogue would be appropriate. In this way, we keep the person’s memory alive in helping others.
In regards to funeral and mourning customs, tradition guides the way, but the Reform movement realizes that people make their own choices in observing rituals that provide comfort and meaning.
On the day of the funeral, plan on arriving about a half hour early to the site of the service. As family and friends arrive, some will want to come and offer their sympathies. You should know that you do not have to make yourself available at this time; there will be a mourning period after the funeral. Before the service, we encourage you to spend the time with your loved ones. Simply inform the Funeral Director of your wishes.
Jewish custom suggests that to be designated a mourner, we must be a father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister (including half-brother and half-sister), husband or wife of the deceased. Obviously, those who choose to observe the mourning rites may do so. The Hebrew term for mourner is Avel, the plural, Avelim.
The Hebrew word for coffin is aron, meaning ark, signifying the respect we give for the deceased. The “kosher” coffin is traditionally a simple, inexpensive wooden box, without handles or satin lining, with holes in the bottom to permit the body to return to the earth as soon as possible. Stark simplicity is not an easy choice when faced with a variety of caskets, and often people choose a more beautiful one to show a family’s devotion and honor the deceased. Still, modesty and simplicity remain an appropriate guide.
Judaism teaches that those who have died should be remembered as they were in life. The casket is therefore kept closed throughout the service. While not encouraged, your family may have a private viewing prior to the service.
Most customs for funerals revolve around the issue of respect for the body. Autopsies and donating organs are seen traditionally as desecrating the body and were therefore frowned upon in Jewish law. However, there have always been exceptions to this, such as autopsies being performed to determine cause of death or provide specific medical knowledge to help others. In addition, most Jews of all denominations support organ donation as a holy act to save another, fulfilling the commandment of pikuach nefesh – saving a life.
Cremation is prohibited by Jewish law because of respect for the body and hastening the natural process of “dust to dust.” However, today some Jews choose cremation and most Reform Rabbis, including the clergy of B’nai Israel, while not endorsing the process, will officiate nonetheless. It is then customary to observe the traditions of mourning, including sitting shiva and saying Kaddish. The B’nai Israel cemetery does inter cremains.
Just prior to the service, the Rabbi or Cantor will meet with you and your family and ask if they should perform the custom of Kriah. This is a custom of ripping the garments or ribbon of members of the immediate family (parents, siblings, spouse and children of the person who has died). The clergyperson will then lead a prayer, Tzidduk ha-Din (Righteous Judge). These Kriah ribbons are then worn throughout the period of Shiva as an outward sign of mourning. It also signals others that you are in mourning, allowing them to appropriately modify their interaction with you. Most wear the torn clothing for the length of Shiva, while some Jews continue to wear it for the next 30 days, Shloshim.
The funeral service itself consists of Hebrew and English readings from the Psalms (Tehillim), several contemporary poems or readings in English, words of eulogy and tribute, from either or both family members and the officiating clergy, and El Maleh Rachamim (the Memorial Prayer). Pallbearers are then called forward to carry the casket to the hearse, which is considered a great honor and final gift. According to Jewish law, only Jews can be pallbearers; however, according to Reform tradition, anyone can have this honor. Depending on your needs, you may speak with your clergy about modifying the funeral service.
After the completion of the funeral service, mourners and friends proceed to the cemetery for the burial service. Arriving at the cemetery, mourners and friends may follow the casket as it is carried to the grave and placed in the ground. At your request, you may choose to remain at your car while the casket is taken graveside.
Once all have gathered, readings in Hebrew and English are recited, concluding with the recitation of Kaddish. After Kaddish, there will be an opportunity for each person to place a shovel of earth in the grave. This is not a requirement, but it is the most striking part of the funeral, and while painful, it is perhaps ultimately the most healing.
When you are finished with the shovel, it is customary to place it back in the earth (rather than hand it to the next person) so that no one feels compelled to participate. At the conclusion of the service, friends may form two facing lines, to give support to you and your family as you leave the gravesite. The mourners then return home to begin the Shiva period.
Jewish tradition has us sit for a Se’udah Havra’ah, a Meal of Consolation. Since friends often want to bring food to the shiva home, this meal is both an opportunity for them to provide support to you and your family, as well as to make sure that those in mourning are properly nourished during a time when you might not feel much like eating. Often an egg or round cakes are served, recalling the cyclical nature of life.
Jewish tradition seeks to help us heal and move on when death touches our life. When we arrive home from the cemetery, some may choose symbolically to begin the mourning process by pouring a bit of water on our hands and drying them with a towel.
The word shiva comes from the Hebrew word sheva, which means seven. Families choose the length to “sit shiva,” usually a few days or a maximum of seven. This provides the time to emotionally prepare to return to everyday living, allowing us to complete the most intense period of grieving in the comfort and privacy of our own home. When counting, the day of the funeral serves as the first day of shiva.
More than anything else, shiva is a time to be with people who care about us. Family and friends gather together to talk about loss, to remember the best parts of our loved one’s life, and to lean on someone at a time when we shouldn’t have to be alone. Since many friends will often drop by, it is important to remember that shiva is not a party and that the time spent with others should be appropriate and respectful. There are many customs in a shiva house to show acknowledgement of mourning. Often a memorial candle is lit and kept burning throughout shiva.
As Reform Jews, the rituals of shiva serve as a guide to our observance. Doors are left unlocked so visitors can enter without distracting the mourners and causing them to act as hosts. Some sit low to the ground and do not wear shoes as a sign of being struck by grief. Some cover mirrors, which began as a superstition that the deceased spirit might get trapped in the mirror, and then evolved into a way to discourage vanity. It is not as common to follow this custom, although it is a striking visual cue of the grief felt by everyone who enters the house. Mourners are encouraged to express their sadness through rituals that are meaningful to each person.
As mentioned above, shiva allows us to grieve in comfort and privacy. While Jewish tradition has us stay home throughout this period, if we either need to go outside (to pick up a child at school, for example) or just want some fresh air, some time to stretch our legs, etc., there is no reason not to do so.
It is customary to hold an evening service at home each day during shiva (some may choose to have morning services as well). Besides providing a comforting ritual during this most intense time of grieving, a service is also a good way for friends to share their concern for you. B’nai Israel makes available siddurim (prayer books) in the Reform tradition for your use, as well as the book “On the Doorposts of Your House,” a guide for services and readings to do on your own for most lifecycle events. Members of the congregation have been specially prepared to lead shiva services. You may contact the temple office or clergy to make arrangements.
At B’nai Israel, for four weeks following the funeral, we will read your loved one’s name prior to reciting Kaddish during Friday evening and Saturday morning Shabbat services. These four weeks correspond to the traditional period of Sheloshim (meaning “thirty”).
When Shabbat arrives, shiva is interrupted. It is customary to attend Shabbat services at temple and to spend time quietly at home. Except for your closest friends, visitation should not take place during Shabbat. Visitation may resume after dinner on Saturday evening. For purposes of counting the days of shiva, Shabbat is still considered a day of sitting.
According to Jewish tradition, shiva comes to an end when a Jewish festival arrives. Reform Jewish practice, however, encourages mourners to approach holidays just as we do Shabbat. Attend temple for services and to recite Kaddish. Spend the day quietly at home with family and only the closest of friends. And resume shiva when the first or last day of the festival concludes. During the middle days (Chol ha’Moed) of holidays, Shiva resumes.
The placing of a marker on a grave is a sign of our love and honor for someone we care about. Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of not visiting a gravesite for the first 30 days after burial. The acute pain of our loss is strongest at that time, so it is advisable not to go to the cemetery. Placing a marker, therefore, may happen at any time 30 thirty days, and most choose to consecrate the marker about a year after the funeral. This is so that family members are able to pass through a full cycle of significant events (birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, etc.) when the pain of our loved one’s absence will be felt most dramatically. The steps to take are as follows: Contact a stone-engraving company four to five months before your unveiling date. It is important to allow adequate time for this part of the process. Your Rabbi and Cantor are available for consultation regarding what to inscribe on the stone. Contact the cemetery to arrange the date of your gravestone consecration. Ask the cemetery if they will prepare the site (i.e., clear away branches, etc.) and if they will cover the stone for you. You do not need the Rabbi or Cantor to hold the ceremony, but the clergy are happy to assist you in preparing for or leading it. Please feel free to call the Temple with any questions or concerns.
Yahrzeit is the anniversary of the day of death, observed by attending services and reciting Kaddish. It is customary to light a candle or use electric light. You may choose to observe the English or Hebrew date of death or both. At B’nai Israel, the names will be read on the Shabbat preceding the Yahrzeit. There are other memorial services, called Yizkor, throughout the year. These are Yom Kippur, the last day of Pesach, Shavuot, and on Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. At these services, the names of those who died in the preceding year are read aloud.