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 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.
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 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.
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.
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!