While no one is ever fully emotionally prepared to say a final good-bye to a loved one, one can learn what to do when planning a Jewish funeral. Learning these details (particularly, before they are necessary) can make this painful time less confusing. The traditional timeframe for a Jewish burial is quite brief. In North America, burial usually occurs within three days of the death. Due to this whirlwind of activity, it is helpful for mourners know what to expect from centuries-old Jewish burial and mourning practices.
Contacting the Hevra Kadisha
When a Jewish person passes away, the first task is to inform the Hevra Kadisha (“Holy Committee” or burial society, who will quickly send representatives to gather the body. A hospital, care facility, synagogue, or rabbi should be able to help you contact this organization.
A representative of the Hevra Kadisha may ask if there is someone available to stay with the body until they arrive. A dead person should not be left alone until their burial. A shomer, or guard, will watch over the body, often while reciting psalms. Although a family member may be willing to serve this role, it is not necessary that the shomer (or shomeret, if a woman) know the deceased person (though it is often considered best if they are Jewish).
Most often, the Hevra Kadisha will arrange for transporting the body of a dead person. Depending on the local situation, the Hevra Kadisha will either conduct its work at its own facility or at a funeral home. Trained volunteers will bathe and dress the body with extreme care and respect. According to Jewish law, no natural or chemical agents will be used to preserve the body. A traditional burial will also include dressing the body in a plain white shroud and an untreated wooden coffin. Other than the shroud, the only item that may be buried along with the dead person is a talit (prayer shawl) with one of its corner fringes cut. These rules enable a natural returning of the body to the earth and emphasize the irrelevance of wealth and stature in death.
Larger Jewish communities may have separate burial societies for each synagogue or Jewish denomination (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox). In such a situation, each Hevra Kadisha will have a slightly different approach to the laws and customs connected to body preparation and burial. For example, one Hevra Kadisha may allow the body to be dressed in clothing rather than a simple shroud. For families to whom this is important, one may consider working with that Hevra. Choose the organization that best matches your family’s preferences.
There may not be a burial society in your home town. A burial society is one of the primary institutions of Jewish community. However, not all Jews live in established Jewish communities. In some areas, there may be a set protocol by which Jewish funerals are arranged, even if there is no official burial society. Jewish burials in such areas may be arranged by local Jewish families, sometimes through a synagogue. In other places, it may be best to call the closest synagogue or Jewish Federation—whether it is in the nearest major city or a neighboring state.
Before the Funeral: A Period of Preparation
Though recognizing that an individual’s impact extends beyond their closest family, the Jewish definition of a mourner includes only first-degree relatives—parents, children, siblings, and spouses. These are the people bound to the obligations of mourners under Jewish law. The period of mourning does not officially begin until the coffin of the departed family member is lowered to the ground and covered with dirt.
The time preceding the funeral (called “aninut“) is often the most difficult for mourners. On the one hand, they are not yet in the period of formal mourning; on the other hand, they are already grieving. Friends and family members must be notified. Funeral details must be worked out, if they have not been prearranged.
Funerals are usually arranged by families in consultation with the Hevra Kadisha and a rabbi, as well as a funeral home and/or cemetery. In some places, the Hevra Kadisha, funeral home, and Jewish cemetery may be integrated; even when this is not the case, the three organizations generally communicate well with one another.
Jews are usually buried either in a specifically Jewish cemetery or in a part of the general community cemetery designated for Jewish use. If it is necessary to choose a funeral plot, it is frequently best to consider if there is a cemetery which has been used for other family members. It may even be possible to find an available plot for the deceased near the graves of loved ones.
A funeral officiant (usually a rabbi or cantor) must be scheduled and met. This officiant does not need to be someone who knew the deceased person, although this is preferred by most families. Most often, the officiant is a rabbi who either leads a synagogue where the deceased person was a member or the synagogue of other family members. For those without a connection to a synagogue will find frequently that the funeral home will have a list of potential officiants who serve unaffiliated families at their time of grief.
Usually, the rabbi (or other officiant) will both lead the funeral prayers and deliver a eulogy. In order to prepare for these tasks, the rabbi will generally meet with family members before the funeral, either in their own home or at the synagogue. The rabbi will want family members to provide an accurate picture of the deceased person and the lessons that may be learned from that person’s life. Also, family members will sometimes assist in the selection of readings for the service.
Due to the brevity of the period leading up to a Jewish burial, transportation can be particularly stressful for family and friends who must travel from out-of-town for a funeral. Airfares can be excessive, and “bereavement” fares rarely involve significant discounts. It is not uncommon to find that better rates are available through the Internet. In a best-case scenario, one or more family members (or family friends) may have frequent-flyer rewards allowing for free travel at short notice.
Arranging for a Traditional Meal after the Funeral
Many families, including some who are not observing Shiva, welcome visitors at the family home after the funeral service for a traditional meal, called a “seudat havra’ah” (meal of consolation). This meal is mostly intended for the mourners, who may feel too saddened to eat if left alone. The community is present to provide the food for the mourners, encourage them to take care of their own needs, and usher mourners into a new stage in their lives. This is also a time in which mourners may light a large candle (usually provided by the funeral home) which will burn in the home for the next week.
There is a tendency in many places for families to engage a caterer to provide for this meal. However, it is best for extended family members, synagogue members, or friends to arrange the meal. Mourners should not arrange for the food, greet or entertain guests.
Planning for Shiva
Before the burial, priority should be given to arranging a respectful farewell to the departed loved one. Once these efforts are in place, attention should turn to the details of mourning. If mourners will be sitting shivah (i.e. observing the seven-day-long period of mourning in a family home), preparations must be made, usually with the help of a rabbi or synagogue members. (Some families may alternately make use of a leniency which permits a three-day mourning period when economic necessity requires an early return to work.) This full week of withdrawal from daily concerns provides a chance for mourners to grieve together, exchange memories of the deceased loved one, and be comforted by each other and the community.
Although the most vital tasks and decisions must be made by family members, an excellent way to deal with other tasks is to recruit as many friends and non-first-degree relatives (in-laws can be excellent for this) as possible to make phone calls, help transport out-of-town relatives, arrange food for the meal following the funeral, and assist with other needed errands.
- Contact a Hevra Kadisha (burial society) and/or funeral home. If there is no local organization of this type, contact other local Jewish families, the closest synagogue, or Jewish Federation.
- If the departed person has a pre-arranged burial and funeral plan, find the necessary information.
- If the deceased one owned a talit (prayer shawl), decide if they should be buried with it. (It may also be kept as a family heirloom.)
Sharing the Sadness
- Inform–in person, if possible–the closest family members. For out-of-town members of the immediate family, do your best to make sure that the person being called is not alone or in an inappropriate location to receive the sad news of their loved one’s death. (For example, one should not notify a sibling that their sister has died while he or she is on their cell phone and driving.)
- Make a list of people who should be contacted regarding the death. Include family members, friends, employers (of both the deceased and of family members), co-workers, community members, and neighbors.
- Delegate family members and friends for making phone calls.
- Contact the synagogue of the departed person and/or of the mourners.
- Decide who will conduct the funeral service.
- Consult with the service officiant regarding the eulogy and the participation of family members and friends.
- Estimate the number of funeral attendees.
- Consult with the funeral home and/or cemetery regarding service locations for both the eulogy and burial. Decide if a chapel and/or graveside service will suit family needs.
- Appoint pall-bearers (who will carry the coffin part or all of the way to the burial site). If there are individuals who may be unable to physically handle this task, you may designate them as “honorary” pall-bearers.
- Arrange for transportation to and from the ceremony for mourners and other family members. This is often done through the funeral home.
- Some mourners may wish to practice reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer.
- If mourners would like to rip a garment (usually a shirt or sweater) for kriah, then they should wear that article to the funeral (with appropriate garments underneath, for the sake of modesty).
- If children are to attend the funeral, arrange to seat them with a babysitter or other responsible adult who will not mind leaving the service if the children are restless or upset.
Seudat Havra’ah (“Meal of Consolation”)
- If the family will be observing this custom, members of the extended family or friends—but not the mourners—should make arrangements for a light meal.
- Give out directions to the family home at the funeral.
- Place a pitcher of water, a basin, and towel outside the front door, to be used by funeral returnees before they enter the home. (This may also be done outside the cemetery.)
- Prepare hard-boiled eggs for eating during the meal. These eggs symbolize the cyclical nature of life.
Preparing for Shivah
- Notify employers of needs for family leave.
- Contact the synagogue of the departed person and/or of the mourners regarding the shivah, in order set a schedule of services, to assure ten adults at services (if applicable), and to ask for assistance with other practical arrangements. Set a schedule for meal preparation by friends and extended family.
- Prepare a handout with the shivah information, to be passed out at the funeral, that includes the address of (and maybe directions to) the home where shivah will be observed, hours during which visitors will be welcomed, and the times of the services.
- Create a door sign with visiting hours posted.
- Notify neighbors of the presence of additional cars and people in the neighborhood.
- It can be helpful to have groceries and other necessary items delivered over the course of the week.
- If desired, borrow from the synagogue or funeral home low chairs or cushions for the mourners’ seating, prayer books for services, and kippot (head-coverings) for guests.
- Post an obituary in the local and/or Jewish newspapers. Obituaries may be posted either before or after a funeral.
- Designate a charitable organization(s) to receive donations in the name of the lost loved one.
Pronounced: KAH-dish, Origin: Hebrew, usually referring to the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead.