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Jewish Funeral Etiquette

August 24, 2010

Not a post I planned on writing, but unfortunately – timely. I have to attend the funeral of a close friend’s grandfather tomorrow, and having recently experienced my own loss, I thought this would be an appropriate time to give a little cheat sheet on what a Jewish funeral entails.

There are three major parts to the Jewish death rituals. The Funeral, the Burial and Sitting Shiva.

The Funeral

The service will most likely take place in a funeral home, not a temple. The funeral is usually held within 48 hours of death, in accordance with Jewish custom. This will be a closed casket, and there most likely will not be any viewing. A rabbi may speak, there will be some prayers (most likely in Hebrew, with English translations) and close family members may give eulogies. You should attend this portion of the mourning process as you would attend a funeral of a non-Jewish person. But, because the funeral is often held on very short notice, if you miss this – it’s generally understood. Wearing black is no longer considered mandatory, but you should wear dark colored clothing, and dress conservatively. No open-toed shoes, shorts or casual wear.

The Burial

Jews don’t really have graveside ceremonies for non-family. But, if you are close to the deceased, or their families, you may be asked to accompany the body to it’s final resting place. There is nothing specific to do here. It’s just sad. This is done immediately after the funeral.

Sitting Shiva

Sitting shiva is kind of the Jewish version of a wake. The person is already buried, but people both mourn and celebrate the life of the deceased at the home of a close family relative. People usually sit shiva for a week, but may only be receiving guests “open-house” style for the first few days.  It is considered a good deed to “pay a shiva call.” You should go to the home, offer a personal story about the bereaved, or simply be a good ear for those mourning.

It is appropriate to bring prepared foods to a shiva call (although cookies are always welcome in my family). This is because the family who is mourning should not be concerned with cooking or feeding themselves. This is the way a community takes care of the bereaved.

During a shiva call, you may see that the mirrors are covered. This is because Jewish custom states that those in mourning should not be concerned with their physical appearance.  Those mourning may also be sitting on low to the ground, uncomfortable chairs or even boxes. They may also have a ripped piece of clothing over their heart. This is part of a process called keriah.

Your clothing does not have to be as somber for a shiva call, but please dress conservatively. The family is still deep in mourning.

Sending Condolences

Do not send flowers to the home of the bereaved. Flowers are not appropriate for Jewish funerals and should be reserved for happier occasions.

Prepared, hot foods are the most appropriate gift, especially if you are making a shiva call. You may also want to send some sort of gift basket, if you can’t attend in person. Search here for gift baskets and you can even sort by kosher — which is important if you aren’t sure if the family keeps kosher or not. Note: The above IS an affiliate link, but it’s not a bad idea!

In most cases, the family will have chosen a charity. If you would prefer to make a financial donation, the funeral home or family may have information about the charity selected.

As with any loss – a handwritten note, remembrance or photo of the deceased is always welcome. What people remember about those you lost is always intriguing, and very often precious.

The Unveiling and Visiting a Grave

Jews are buried without headstones. Usually, about a year later there is an “unveiling” ceremony, where the headstone is revealed. This is almost always very plain, without a lot of prose or pictures. Very often a Hebrew name will be used. When visiting a Jewish grave, visitors often leave rocks on the headstone, as a marker that someone had been there.

And, because it always comes up–yes, in almost all cases, except for a few sects of Judaism, you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo.

This is a very basic primer, and of course – there are all sorts of customs I haven’t mentioned here, but I hope that if and when you do have to attend a funeral of a Jewish person, you will have at least some knowledge of what to expect. And if I have gotten the meanings behind any customs incorrect, I hope someone more knowledgeable will let me know. If you have more etiquette questions, please ask!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2010 1:09 am

    very nice post. and I love the new design.

    • August 24, 2010 12:59 pm

      Thanks April! Glad you are back from vacation.

  2. August 24, 2010 8:28 am

    Also, if you visit the grave, it’s customary to leave a rock on the headstone to show that you’ve been there.

    • August 24, 2010 12:59 pm

      Yup. Great point. I had mentioned it before, but it’s a nice reminder :)

  3. August 24, 2010 11:59 am

    I want to underscore the thing about sending a note, especially if you can include something about what the person meant to you or stories about them. My dad has been dead for nine years and I still crave hearing stories about him from other people — there is nothing better, I think because it’s the closest you can get to actually having the person there again.

    Funny stories are allowed too! It doesn’t have to be somber.

    And last: Do not worry that by speaking about the person, you will “remind” their family/friends of the death or cause them pain. They’re already thinking about it, believe me, and it’s weird and upsetting when people avoid talking about it.

    • August 24, 2010 1:00 pm

      Could not possibly agree more. I figured I would do a more lengthy “Funeral Etiquette” in the future, and flesh this out, but it certainly is not alien to Jewish funerals.

      My sympathy on the loss of your dad. He raised a hell of a kid.

      • August 24, 2010 1:16 pm

        Ha, he did, didn’t he? One of his coworkers, after meeting me for the first time, told us “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and for some reason we found that hysterical and repeated it to each other frequently.

  4. wendy permalink
    September 15, 2010 10:18 am

    Thank you!

    • September 15, 2010 10:20 am

      You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help.

  5. Sherry permalink
    April 13, 2014 7:19 pm

    I just attended a service for a Russian Jewish colleague of mine who passed at the very young age of 44. After the service (which was at the funeral home), I went up to the daughter (16 years old) and husband and they were very rigid. I don’t know if I overstepped my bounds by giving the daughter a hug and acknowledging her husband. They did not arrive more than a few minutes before the service began and then everyone was going to a restaurant to eat and I could not attend so I wanted to express my condolences before I left. My colleague and I were close up until she left because of her illness and I feel bad if I offended the family. The deceased mother was overcome with grief and was being consoled by her son so she didn’t even see me. Any comments or suggestions for me if I should attend another service I am not familiar with? Thanks for any advice.

    • April 13, 2014 8:33 pm

      I am sorry for your loss. I don’t think you did anything wrong or out of place. Any oddness you may have encountered was likely due to their loss and tragedy, and had nothing to do with their religion or the service.

      Personally, I’d be rigid if someone I didn’t know hugged me, but that’s not to say you did anything wrong! Just … different people grieve differently.

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