The Funeral, or Levaya

A Jewish funeral is held as quickly as possible after death and usually includes readings, a eulogy, and a special memorial prayer.

Print this page Print this page

3.  The memorial prayer--El Male Rachamim [God, full of mercy]. Among the most well known prayers in Jewish liturgy, the El Male asks God to grant perfect peace to the departed and to remember the many righteous deeds s/he performed. "May this soul be bound up in the bond of life (b'tzror hachayim) and may s/he rest in peace." The cantor normally chants this memorial prayer in a plaintive, mournful voice.

Moving to the Grave Site

Generally, this concludes the formal service held in a synagogue or chapel and the funeral party moves to the grave site.

It is a great honor to be named a pallbearer. Generally, the honor is offered to close relatives and friends. The coffin is actually carried by hand or guided on a special gurney to the grave site by the pallbearers who, traditionally, pause several (usually three or seven) times before reaching the grave. This indicates our unwillingness to finally take leave of the loved one. The rabbi or cantor recites verses from Psalm 91 expressing confidence that God watches over us at each of these stops. It is considered an important responsibility of the community to follow the casket for at least a few steps on the way to the grave.

At the grave site, the final steps of the funeral ritual are performed. The mourners take their places by sitting in a row of chairs placed before the grave. If kriah, the rending of garments, has not taken place before the earlier service, the mourners stand and it is now done by the rabbi. The cantor may chant another psalm, and the rabbi often offers another reading from Psalm 91. Then, in traditional burial, the casket is lowered by hand or mechanical device, and the rabbi says in Hebrew, "May s/he go to her or his resting place in peace." Some rabbis will also say the traditional prayer Tzidduk Hadin, justification of the divine decree, which acknowledges acceptance of the inevitability of death.

The climax of the service is when the mourners are asked to rise and recite the Mourner's Kaddish (sometimes a [modified] version… is said), the ancient prayer which reaffirms our belief in the greatness of God. Then, mourners and those in attendance are invited to fill the grave with earth. Since this practice is not universally observed, the rabbi usually explains what is about to happen and the reasons why the community fulfills this ultimate mitzvah of burying the dead.

When the mourners are ready to leave the cemetery, two parallel rows are formed by the participants, creating an aisle for the bereaved to pass through on their way from the grave site. As the mourners walk through this corridor of consolation, the community offers the traditional prayer of condolence, "HaMakom y'nachem etkhem b'tokh sh'ar aveilei Tzion v'Yrushalayim"--"May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." It is customary to wash the hands upon leaving the cemetery.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Ron Wolfson

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