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Reprinted with permission from A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Jewish Lights).
The Hebrew word for funeral is levaya–[honoring the deceased by] “accompanying” [his/her bier to the grave]. Jewish tradition places a great value on the interactive nature of burying the dead. The rabbi doesn’t bury the dead. Neither does the cemetery worker. Rather, the bereaved family, assisted by the community, is responsible for this most important mitzvah [commandment] of bringing the dead to the final resting place.
When Is the Funeral Held?
The burial should take place as soon as possible. The biblical injunction is to bury on the same day as the death. The rabbis of the Talmud considered a speedy burial to be among the most important ways to honor the deceased. They believed that final atonement depended in part on the body returning to the dust of the earth and did not want the process delayed. By the time of the Middle Ages, since embalming was forbidden, it became a matter of hygiene and public safety that the body be buried expeditiously.
Yet, today it is difficult to hold a funeral on the day of the death itself. Proper preparation for burial and the need to notify the community require the funeral be held the day after death at the earliest. In addition, further delays are allowed in the following special cases:
1. When close relatives must travel long distances to attend the funeral. As the Jewish community has become more and more mobile, families have scattered all over the continent, indeed the globe. Even though airplanes can bring together families in a matter of hours, the funeral may have to be delayed a day or two to allow for such travel.
2. When Shabbat [Sabbath], the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the yom tov [holiday] days of the pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot occur.
3. When a suitable casket or shrouds are not available.
4. When civil authorities require unavoidable postmortems, documentation, etc.
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