How to Plan a Jewish Funeral

A Practical Guide to Preparations for Jewish Burial and Mourning

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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. 

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