The Jewish 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.

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.

Funerals are almost always held in daylight hours (although in Jerusalem, burials do take place at night). Times are chosen that are convenient for the family and for a maximum number of friends to attend. Preferred times seem to be near the lunch hour and late afternoon.

Where Is the Funeral Held?

The place of the funeral varies according to the custom of the local community. Here are the options:

1.      The home. It is possible to have the service in a home, but very few people do this today.

2.      A funeral home. Many communities have a Jewish funeral home that houses the mortuary and a chapel for services.

3.      A synagogue. In some communities, the service begins in the synagogue sanctuary or chapel, and then proceeds to the cemetery. However, some congregations do not allow these services in the sanctuary, unless the deceased is an outstanding member of the community.

4.      The cemetery. In the larger Jewish communities, the cemetery will usually have a chapel for services on site.

5.      At graveside. In some ways the simplest of alternatives, it is absolutely appropriate to conduct the entire service at graveside. Of course, season and likely weather should be taken into consideration when choosing this option. Often, the cemetery will have some tenting for the immediate family, but usually not enough for the entire funeral party.

Is There a Standard Funeral?

Surprisingly, the answer is “No.” There is not a single standard for the service, although there are the following basic components:

1.  Readings. Generally, a funeral begins with several readings about death from Jewish sources. Psalm 23 with its famous verses, “Adonai is my Shepherd, I shall not want. God has me lie down in green pastures… God revives my soul for the sake of God’s glory… Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me… ”

Psalms 15, 24, 90, and 103 are also often recited. At the funeral of a woman, the Eshet Hayil [Woman of Valor] (Proverbs 31) is sometimes included. These readings offer comfort and reflection about the deceased and the survivors.

2.  The eulogy. The eulogy (hesped) is designed to recall the life, characteristics, and accomplishments of the deceased. Most often, it is offered by a rabbi who has been furnished information about the deceased in an earlier meeting with the bereaved. This is seen as a sign of respect and an honor to the deceased and the family. Yet, increasingly, members of the family request the opportunity to speak about the life of the departed. These personal eulogies are often delivered with great emotion and with a degree of insight that is difficult for a third party to achieve. In every case we know of, a eulogy offered by an adult child for a parent, or a brother for a sister, or even a grandchild for a grandparent has been a source of great comfort and honor for the mourners and a tremendously moving experience for the listeners. Some rabbis will welcome this contribution to the funeral (as long as not too many people want to speak), while others would prefer that personal eulogies be given at a shiva minyan [a home prayer service where mourners are able to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer].

3.  The memorial prayerEl 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.

Two customs associated with filling the grave are 1) to use the convex side of the shovel and 2) not to pass the shovel hand to hand, but to replace it in the earth for the next participant, “lest death be contagious.”

Another interesting custom is to ask the deceased for forgiveness for any hurt one might have caused her/him. Some also pluck grass from the ground, which they throw behind them as a sign of their renewed awareness of human mortality.

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

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