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Jewish Funeral Traditions

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Jewish Funerals

Judaism specifies certain funeral customs that are observed by Jewish families. There are traditionally three types of Judaism practiced in the United States: Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism. The Jewish customs explained here will vary depending on what type of Judaism the Deceased or their family practiced, and this should not be considered a comprehensive guide.

Jewish funeral customs emphasize respect for the Deceased over everything else; most customs are performed to show respect for the Deceased and their life.

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Burial

One of the most important customs is to bury the Deceased as soon as possible. Jewish custom is focused on honoring the Deceased and a quick burial is part of that honor; sometimes the burial will happen within 24 hours if possible. The reasons why a funeral would be delayed are for a holiday, or Shabbat, the transportation of the Deceased, or if important family members must travel to be present at the service.

Some Jewish families will choose not to leave the Deceased alone until burial. A shomer, or guardian, is usually chosen to be present with the Deceased until the funeral and burial can take place. Embalming, cremation and autopsies are generally discouraged in the Jewish faith. If the death occurred under unusual circumstances, the family can allow an autopsy but it might be considered shaming the Deceased to allow it. If the family agrees to an autopsy, a Rabbi is usually present to ensure respect for the Deceased. (Please note: Organ donation can be a controversial topic. Some Jewish families consider it a respectful custom because it can give life to others; some may consider it disrespectful.)

The Deceased’s remains are usually bathed by people trained in the Jewish faith according to custom; the body is then buried in a plain wooden casket dressed only in plain white garments. Members of the family may dress in traditional mourning garments, with either torn black ribbons or a tear in mourning clothes to signify their loss. Parents have the left side of their shirts torn by a Rabbi, while other family members have the right side torn. This tradition is called the K’hria and it represents the loss. The tear in the parents’ clothing signifies the deeper loss of the parent-child relationship. These garments are worn for the entire Shiva, or seven day mourning period.  Reformed and Conservative Jewish customs sometimes call for the Shiva to last three to four days rather than seven.

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Funeral Services

Funeral services are usually brief and simple according to Jewish custom and may be held at the graveside, in the synagogue or in a funeral home. The burial is called the K'vurah and mourners typically stay by the graveside until the casket is covered (unlike in Christian tradition where mourners leave before the casket is actually buried).

Judaism prescribes that there is no wake or visitation because of the belief that the Deceased be buried as soon as possible. It is not customary to bring or send flowers to a Jewish funeral, but instead to donate to a Tzedakah fund (charity) important to the family. For the first meal after the funeral, called Seudat Havra’a, mourners eat hard-boiled eggs and other round foods to symbolize the cycle of life.

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Mourning

The Shiva, or the initial seven day mourning period, is a time where any family member or friend can visit the family in mourning no matter what religion they might practice. It is customary to bring food which may or may not need to be kosher depending on the family’s practices. Mourners are sometimes encouraged to stay home rather than attend work or school, as Shiva is a time of intense mourning and contemplation of life. Mirrors are usually covered in the Shiva home, no leather shoes are worn, a candle burns for seven days and men refrain from shaving.

The general mourning period, or Shloshim, lasts for 30 days, including the week of Shiva. The restrictions during Shloshim might only be practiced by Conservative and Orthodox Jews because they are strict. Mourners typically do not attend weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs or attend other social events. If the Deceased had children, the children mourn for a full year (called Shanna) after the death of their parent. They continue to refrain from social events and some will continue to avoid cutting their hair.

The anniversary of the death on the Hebrew calendar is called the Yahrzeit. Mourners will sometimes light a Yahrzeit candle which burns for 24-hours and say sacred prayers to remember the Deceased.

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