Jewish Funerals: What to Expect When You Go

Bad news, unfortunately, travels fast. It can be helpful to know in advance what to do when attending a Jewish funeral.

The Funeral Happens Right Away.

Since there is often such short notice of a funeral, you may very well need to clear your calendar or make the necessary arrangements to attend the service. Most employers are understanding and will allow you time off to attend a funeral. If you have young children, you may need to arrange childcare. If you don’t drive, you may need to ask someone for transportation to the funeral.

Dress appropriately.

Proper attire for a funeral is a dress for women and a coat and tie for men. (It is generally customary for men to wear a head covering, called a kippah or yarmulke, during a funeral and burial. In some liberal congregations, this applies to both men and women; in others, head coverings are rare even for men. These will generally be available at the funeral home or cemetery.)

Editor’s note: These days, women also come to funerals in any dark business attire outfit, including a pants suit.

Arrive early.

Funerals almost always start exactly on time. Try to arrive at the site sometime between a half-hour to a few minutes before the announced time.

A funeral director will tell you where to sit or stand for the service. S/he may give you an attendance card to fill out or ask you to sign a guest book when you enter the chapel. Write your name and, if you wish, a brief message of condolence.

Do not greet the mourners before the service.

With few exceptions, now is not the time to approach the mourners. They will either be in a “waiting room,” seated in the front pews, or exiting from a car at graveside when the service is about to begin. As much as you want to reach out to comfort them, this is not the time. You may want them to know you are there. That’s what the guest book is for, or let them know how you reacted to the eulogy when you see them during a shiva call. If you are very, very close family or friends, it may be appropriate to see the mourn­ers before the service begins or approach them after the graveside service.

Talk softly.

In the minutes before the service, as people come in and see friends and relatives, a low rumble of conversation develops. Often, the coffin is already in the room. Try to talk softly and appropriately. This is definitely not a time for swap­ping jokes or boisterous talk.

Participate in the service.

The rabbi and/or cantor will lead the congregation in prayer during the service. Reply with “Amen” at the appropriate times. Participate in any responsive readings.  [If you are not familiar with when to do so, follow the example of those around you. Those who are not Jewish should participate only as they are comfortable.] React as you may to the eulogy–it is designed to touch you emotionally. Bring a handkerchief or tissues–like weddings, it’s not unusual to cry at a funeral, even if the deceased was not well-known to you.

Go to the burial if possible.

Decide whether to go to the graveside. If the service has been held in a synagogue, a funeral home, or chapel on the grounds of the cemetery, there will be a proces­sional to the grave site. If at all possible, go. It is a great comfort to the mourners to accompany them to the grave.

At the Cemetery.

In situations when a processional is formed to go from the place of the service to the cemetery, you will be directed to join the line of cars following the hearse and the family. A sticker identifying your car as part of the funeral may be placed on the windshield and you will probably be asked to turn on your headlights. A police officer may escort the procession for traffic control; follow any directions s/he may give you.

Surround the family at the graveside. When you reach the cemetery, you will be directed to the graveside. There you will find a row of chairs for the mourners. Stand behind and around the graveside. When the family arrives, do not greet them. Often, this is the most difficult part of the entire experience. Let them take their places for the graveside service.

Participate in the ritual at graveside. Those officiating at graveside will say sev­eral prayers; respond in the appropriate places. At the end of the service, the casket may be lowered and friends invited to place dirt into the grave. Normally, the offi­ciants begin this ritual, followed by the mourners and their family members. Then, you can take a place in line to do this most meaningful and important mitzvah. When your turn arrives, pick up a handful of dirt with your hands or with a shovel and place it into the grave. Some do this three times. Place the shovel back into the pile of dirt; do not hand it to the next person.

As the mourners leave the grave site, form two rows in the crowd creating a path for their exit. As they pass, say the ancient words of conso­lation,Ha-Makom yenachem etchem b’toch sh’ar aveilei tzee-yone v’Yerushalayimmay the Omnipresent comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Generally, you do not approach the mourners at this time. If you do, they must acknowledge your presence rather than cope with their own grief. Of course, if the mourner reaches out to you, respond with a hug and an additional word of condolence.

Wash your hands.

It is customary to wash hands when leaving a cemetery. You may do this as you leave or before you enter the shiva home, or in your own home if you are not going directly from the funeral to the shiva home.

READ: How To Be the World’s Best Shiva Guest

Go to the shiva if possible.

Note the times and place of the shiva [the time, traditionally seven days, during which the immediate mourners remain at home, receiving visitors and observing the most intensive period of mourning] and preferred charities. The funeral director will announce the times and the address of the home where the family will receive visitors. Preferred charities for donations in memory of the deceased will also likely be announced. It’s a good idea to bring a pen and a piece of paper on which to note this information.

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

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