Instead of delineating the step by step details of a funeral, which beyond the tahara (physical and spiritual preparation of the body), the suspension of the mourners’ obligation to perform positive commandments before the burial, the tearing of the mourners’ garments, the blessing that accepts God as the true Judge and the actual burial, have a certain flexibility based on custom and preference, I’d like to briefly focus on the values and messages that a funeral should instill within us. First, a funeral and the subsequent mourning periods, serve to both elicit honor for the dead while providing comfort for the mourners. The Hebrew word for funeral, levaya, signifies that we are accompanying the departed on their last journey in this world to what we believe will be a much more glorious destination in the world to come. Nevertheless, while we ultimately believe that the person is passing to “a better place”, we mourn the loss deeply. Obviously, the closer one is to the departed the greater one will feel the void, but as the towering 20th century authority Rav Yoseph Dov Soloveichik has pointed out, at the passing of each person we also mourn the fact that we have lost the uniqueness of that person, never to be replaced.
The tahara sends a very powerful message that all humans are created in the image of God, and thus, we must treat even a dead body, which is the repository of the soul, with great dignity and respect. We do not leave the body, dressed in white shrouds (and tallit for a man), alone until burial, when the body is literally returned to the earth, from which God created mankind (Genesis 2:7). Beyond showing our respect for the person, this process should hopefully remind us to treat all people with sensitivity and dignity while they are alive, as we all carry a divine lifeblood within us.
The hesped, or eulogy, harkens back to Abraham who eulogized and cried over his dear wife Sarah, and remains the central part of the funeral. An appropriate eulogy, whether by a family member or presiding rabbi, should always maintain its purpose of comforting the mourners while highlighting the good traits of the deceased. While tasteful humor meant to emphasize the goodwill of the departed may be appropriate, a eulogy should always seek to inspire its listeners to be better people by, ideally, inculcating the good traits of the eulogized into their own lives.
Many people are uncomfortable or scared of death, and thus, act inappropriately when confronted with the subject. After the funeral and burial, Jewish law, in a brilliant display of understanding human nature, mandates the observance of shiva, literally, seven, the week-long period when visitors comfort the mourners, whether the children, spouse, siblings or parents of the deceased. This begins immediately after the burial when the consolers are obligated to prepare a meal for the mourners, who either due to the busy preparations before the funeral or because of their deep sorrow, may neglect to eat and take care of their own material needs. During the course of shiva, the family members generally spend the entire day together at the deceased’s home or a suitable family member’s, discussing the departed, praying together and consoling one another. Visitors should have one purpose in coming to a house of mourning – to console the mourners, which is generally done by talking about the deceased and his positive impact upon his environment. One, however, should wait for the mourners to begin talking-sometimes they just want to sit in silence and the visitors’ presence is sufficient to give a measure of comfort. Visits should be short-these are not social occasions where the mourners feel obligated to serve the visitors, whether food, drinks or attending to their needs. In fact, a prevalent custom is for the community to provide all food and services to mourners during shiva – the last thing a mourner should be worried about is feeding the consolers.
The process of shiva, followed by the 30-day mourning period (shloshim), and for parents, an additional 11 month period after the shloshim, is meant to slowly ease the mourners back into regular life. The death of a loved one can and should be should be devastating, but not to the extent of crippling his family or friends. Consolers have a special role to play in helping the mourners cope with their loss, and should always err on the side of empathetic solemnity.
After the death of a person Jewish law requires the body to be buried as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours, sometimes even on the same day. Usually, from the moment death occurs until burial the body is not left alone. After washing and shrouding, the body is placed in a coffin and the lid closed (there is no open-casket ceremony in the Jewish tradition). It is the custom for someone to sit with the casket at all times and to recite Psalms.
If possible the rabbi would have spent some time with the family prior to burial (often the day before or a few hours before the funeral) to talk to the family and to gather some important information about the deceased in his/her family, background and life story to prepare the eulogy (hesped).
When the immediate family arrives at the funeral home they are often guided by the funeral director to a side room to gather while the guests to the funeral assemble in the funeral hall. Before the family goes over to the funeral room the rabbi (or sometimes the funeral director) will help them to perform “kri’ah” (the tearing of the garment). This is an outward symbol of the death that just happened and that someone close has been “torn” from us. For a parent the mourner would tear his or her garment (shirt, jacket etc.) on the left side, for other immediate relatives (spouses, children, siblings) one would tear the garment on the right side. This torn garment is worn by the mourners during all the days of shiva.
The ceremony begins by the funeral director leading in the family into the funeral hall and all that are present will rise to silently welcome the mourners. The family is seated in the front rows nearest the coffin. The rabbi might begin the ceremony with a few psalms or other suitable readings followed by the eulogy. In many ceremonies the word is then given to other family members or friends who would like to share a few words about the deceased.
The ceremony in the funeral home might then be concluded by el male rahamim, a prayer for the deceased. The casket is then wheeled out and the all that are present follow the casket to the hearse, beginning with the immediate family.
It is customary to accompany the hearse for a bit on foot if one is not attending the burial at the cemetery.
Arriving at the cemetery, the casket is nowadays often wheeled to the open grave which has been dug by the cemetery workers accompanied by “pall bearers” often close friends or relatives. If the cemetery rules permits it, the preference would be for the pall bearers to actually carry the casket. It is customary to stop seven times on the way to the grave and to recite a selection of psalms. The casket is then lowered into the ground and the phrase: “al mekomo/a yavo/tavo b’shalom” – May he/she go to God in peace.
The last act of kindness we can show to the deceased is the shoveling of the grave. Very often this is left to the cemetery personnel but there is great value for those present to perform this mitzvah themselves. It is the last thing we can do for the deceased and it shouldn’t be left to strangers. Besides that it has enormous cathartic power for the mourners. It is a practical act that makes the finality of death very real and brings out the feelings of loss and grief which is an important step in the beginning of the grief process.
Once the grave has been covered the prayer “zidduk ha din” – Acceptance of Judgment is recited by the mourners, followed by the Burial Kaddish – a special kaddish that is only recited at the grave side.
All present at the cemetery now form two rows between which the mourners pass. As they pass through they are greeted with the traditional formula:
“Hamakom yenachem otcha/otach b’toch sh’ar avelim tzion v’rushalayim” – May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem (for Ashkenazim) or “Min hashamayim tenuchamu” – Comfort will come for you from heaven (for Sephardim).
Upon leaving the cemetery one washes hands (without a blessing).
The family will now return home where they will sit shiva and receive visitors.
Jewish funerals can vary as much as the Rabbis conducting them. That said there are some common practices and I will use the way I conduct funerals as an example and you can certainly use the responses of my Conservative and Orthodox colleagues to compare.
The funeral begins often with a period of visitation, where the close family of the deceased accepts the condolences of those attending the service. Following that, the family will either remain in a side room or sit in the front row as the service is about to begin.
Just before the formal beginning, the Rabbi or Funeral Director (often both) will give the immediate mourners (spouse, child, sibling or parent of the deceased) a ribbon to pin to their clothing, which the mourner will rip as a sign of mourning while reciting the words “Baruch Dyan HaEmet” – Blessed is the Faithful Judge. Many Reform rabbis will offer the ribbon to grandchildren and sons/daughters in-law or step parents/step children/step siblings when appropriate based on the relationship. The immediate mourners wear the ribbon for a full week, those who have lost a parent wear it for a month.
The service begins often with the reading or chanting of a Psalm or two, then the Rabbi (or other leaders) will say a few brief general remarks and continue into other readings from the Psalms and scriptures in general. It is during this period when Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd” – is often read. More traditional practice is to read that Psalm later. I often use a powerful reading written by Alvin Fine that begins and ends with the words “Birth is a beginning, Death is a destination.”
At this point, the eulogy is delivered. Most often family members or friends will share their memories briefly and then the Rabbi will tie the thoughts together and give it context within Jewish practice with his or her eulogy, prepared after a meeting with the family the day or two before the funeral.
Following the eulogy/eulogies, the memorial prayer, El Maleh Rachamim is recited, often in Hebew and English. This prayer incorporates the name of the deceased and asks for God’s mercy on his or her spirit as it ascends into the eternal care of God’s protection. The congregation rises for this prayer.
At this point, if the service as conducted in a sanctuary or funeral home, the casket is escorted out of the building using honored pallbearers, led by the Rabbi (sometimes reciting Psalm 23) and followed by the immediate mourners. Then everyone goes in procession* to the cemetery. If the service is at the cemetery the service simply continues from the same point as if the casket had just been placed on the lowering mechanism.
At the cemetery the Rabbi, pallbearers and mourners will walk the casket from the car to the gravesite where it is placed on the lowering mechanisms and lowered (some prefer to lower after everyone has left). As this happens the Rabbi reads a passage from the Book of Isaiah, and may offer additional prayers and readings. When the mechanisms have lowered the casket and are removed, the family and other gatered may place earth in the grave (again, sometimes this takes place after everything else or after everyone has left).
Following that, the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited; it is a praise of God, without mention of death. Most Reform Rabbis use the regular Mourner’s Kaddish which people know well, but some may follow the traditional practice of the Burial Kaddish which speaks of eternal life and future resurrection in the time of the Messiah.
The final part of the funeral is that as the non-mourners leave, they offer the words “HaMakom Yinacheim” – may the Holy One comfort You – to the moruners. Sometimes this is as a group, other times individually as the mourners leave between two lines of comforters.
* I am personally opposed to formal funeral processions in this day and age. Even if the family insists on one, I do not participate and simply say that I am going ahead to make sure the cemetery is ready. In a time prior to cars or in the early days of cars, a procession to an cemetery often located outside of city limits, was necessary to transport people to the cemetery and back. In our current time, with high-speed freeways and challenging traffic patterns, they pose an unnecessary and dangerous situation to both those who are in them and drivers who encounter them. It is easy enough to provide each attendee with a printed map of detailed directions from the service location to the cemetery and ask that everyone leave for the cemetery immediately upon the casket being taken out.
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