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Attending a Jewish funeral for the first time? Learn what happens at a Jewish funeral, including Jewish burial customs, what happens during the mourning period and what’s appropriate at the funeral service.

What do Jewish people believe happens after death?

Jewish people believe in an afterlife. They also believe that every human has a soul which will return to God after death. But their afterlife depends on how they acted in this life. So God will judge them after death and those who have lived a good life will go to heaven and those who haven’t will go to hell.

Jewish people believe that if they’ve lived a good life they’ll be rewarded by God and reach a higher state which is often called The World To Come. These Jewish beliefs are particularly important to Orthodox and Conservative Jewish people. But other traditions like Reform Judaism have slightly different beliefs depending on their heritage.

When does a Jewish funeral take place?

A Jewish funeral traditionally takes place as soon as possible. This is usually on the day the person dies or within 24 hours.

Why do Jewish funerals happen so quickly?

According to Jewish scripture, burying someone as soon as possible is a sign of respect. It’s a way of honouring the person who passed away. This principle is known as k'vod hamet. But the funeral can be delayed if it’s necessary. For example, family members may need to travel to attend the funeral or they may need to wait until after the Sabbath. The Sabbath (Saturday) is a holy day for Jews so no funerals happen on that day.

Jewish burial customs

There are several Jewish burial customs and rituals that family members take part in after the death of a loved one. These include:

  • A prayer called the Dayan Ha’Emet is recited as soon as possible after the death.
  • Some Jewish people make a tear in their clothing as a sign of grief. This can be worn for up to a week after the death. This is known as kriah.
  • The body of the person who died is washed. This is known as Tahara.
  • The ritual washing and preparation of the body is usually done by a group of Jewish people called Chevra Kadisha. This means holy society. One person will also stay with the body to protect it until the burial takes place. This can be a member of the Chevra Kadisha or it can be a family member or close friend. The Chevra Kadisha who attend are usually the same sex as the person who passed away.
  • The body will then be dressed in a simple white burial shroud. If the person who died was male then they may also be dressed in a prayer shawl (tallit) and a skullcap (kippah or tamulke).
  • Embalming the body isn’t allowed.
  • Organ donation is allowed because it’s seen as a good deed in Judaism.
  • Autopsies aren’t allowed. This is because it’s seen as disrespectful. So they only happen when absolutely necessary and a rabbi should be present.
  • There’s no public viewing of the body and it will be buried in a simple coffin. A simple coffin is used because it shows that all people are equal no matter their status or wealth.

Where does a Jewish funeral take place?

A Jewish funeral can take place at a synagogue or at the graveside or both. Some less traditional sects of Judaism who accept cremation might have the funeral at a crematorium.

What happens at a Jewish funeral?

A Jewish funeral will typically be led by a rabbi – a Jewish religious minister. They’ll lead the mourners in the following activities during the service:

  • The family will wear a black ribbon called Keriah. At the beginning of the funeral service they will cut the ribbon. Much like putting a tear in a piece of clothing on hearing of someone’s death, this is a symbol of grief.
  • The rabbi or a member of the family will read a eulogy.
  • The rabbi will then lead the mourners in prayers including the memorial prayer and the mourner’s blessing.
  • The rabbi will then read psalms and lead hymns.
  • Once the service is finished the coffin will be carried by family members or professional pallbearers to the grave site. The rest of the family and mourners will follow behind to the grave site.
  • At the grave prayers will be read and the coffin will be lowered into the ground.
  • Traditionally, family members will put a handful of earth onto the coffin before it’s buried.

How long is Jewish funeral?

A Jewish funeral can last between 20 and 60 minutes depending on the requests of the family who organised the service.

What happens after a Jewish funeral?

After a Jewish funeral service the family may choose to have a reception or wake at the synagogue or at a family home to pay their respects. Food might be prepared by mourners and shared at the wake.

Jewish funeral etiquette for non-Jews

If you’re going to attend a Jewish funeral and you’re not sure what to expect the below info will help.

What to wear to a Jewish funeral

Choosing what to wear to a Jewish funeral will depend on the type of traditions that the family follow. For example, Orthodox Jews may prefer you to wear something conservative and modest. Women may need to cover their hair. And non-Jewish men may also need to wear a kippah. These are sometimes supplied by the synagogue.

For conservative or more progressive Jewish sects, mourners may not need to cover their heads. They’ll just be expected to wear a smart, black outfit. So before you attend it’s a good idea to ask the family what’s appropriate.

Do you send flowers to a Jewish funeral?

It’s not traditional to send flowers to a Jewish family in mourning. Instead they might like you to donate to a charity or share kosher food you’ve made.

Jewish mourning rituals

After a Jewish funeral service the family will usually carry out mourning rituals. Close friends may also take part to pay their respects to the person who passed away. Traditionally, the family will:

  • Light a candle and let it burn for the entire mourning period.
  • Stay at home to pray and mourn their loss.
  • Refrain from doing their usual daily activities like going to work.
  • Accept visitors who have come to pay their respects.

What is Jewish mourning called?

The first period of mourning after a Jewish funeral is called Shiva. The second period of Jewish mourning is known as shloshim.

How long is the Jewish mourning period?

Shiva lasts for 7 days and shloshim lasts for 30 days. During shloshim the family will go back to their normal activities but they will still say prayers and sing hymns each day to mourn their loss. Some families may choose to hold a longer mourning period, especially after the death of a parent. A memorial can also take place each year on the anniversary of the death. This is known as Yahrzeit. During the memorial the family will light a candle and let it burn for 24 hours. They’ll also sing hymns and recite prayers at the synagogue.

Why are Jewish mourning rituals important?

Jewish mourning rituals are an important part of the faith because honouring the person who has died is one of their greatest commandments. All Jewish funeral traditions are carried out to help the person who has died in their journey into the next world.

Funeral Choice is a free online directory where you can find funeral directors and resources on arranging a funeral. Visit our funeral planning advice centre for more useful info. 

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