Questions & Answers About Jewish Funerals

This article, in question-and-answer format, addresses common questions about Jewish funeral customs.

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Reprinted with permission from A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Jewish Lights).

Must I shovel dirt into the grave?

For most people who have received a proper explanation of this practice, shoveling dirt into the grave brings a closure to the funeral that is literally rooted in the reality of the moment. However, others feel the custom is potentially psychologically troublesome. The placing of earth on the casket or in the grave is a matter of personal choice.

Where is the torn garment worn?

Traditionally, the kriah [tearing] is made on the left side of the garment for parents (over the heart) and on the right side for other relatives. You may choose to have a tie, blouse or shirt, or suit lapel torn, or a black ribbon worn on a garment.

How long do I wear the kriah garment?

The tradition calls for the mourner to wear a torn garment during the shiva [first seven days of intensive mourning]. On Shabbat, Holy Days, and festivals, no public signs of mourning are worn.

What about flowers at a funeral?

Although descriptions of flowers at funerals are found in the Talmud, most rabbis discourage the use of floral decorations at the funeral or on the casket on the grounds that the money spent on such displays is wasted. Instead, sympathizers are encouraged to send donations to favorite charities or to a charity specified by the bereaved family in the obituary notice. These charities will let the mourners know of your donation to the living, a more appropriate way to express your solidarity with the family. If flowers are sent, you might suggest to the funeral director that they be donated to a hospital or nursing home after the service. In another reflection of differing burial customs, flowers are common at funerals in Israel.

I’ve seen the coffin covered with a cloth during the service. What's that?

At some funerals, a large cloth, similar to the kind of cloth used to cover the lectern on a synagogue pulpit, is placed over the coffin. At Valley Beth Shalom, this cloth, called a miktze, is used at funerals of members. It is embroidered with the Hebrew words "tzedakah tatzeel mimavet," "charity redeems from death." The cloth remains on the coffin from the beginning of the service until it is lowered into the grave.

Why is the coffin not opened for viewing at Jewish funerals?

One of the major goals of the funeral and mourning rituals is to solidify memories of the dead in the minds and hearts of the living. We hope to remember them as they were in the fullness of their lives--vigorous, hearty, beautiful--not as they often are at the end of their lives--weak, frail, helpless. Traditional Judaism argues against embalming or cosmetic surgery to the body. The deceased is not dressed in the finest of clothes. No, the Jewish way is to let the photographic image of the best of times be forever blazened in the memory.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.