What happens at a Jewish funeral? If you are to attend one, what is expected of you? This is written from an Orthodox perspective in the UK. Orthodox Jewish funerals around the world are likely to be similar. Non-orthodox funerals may vary. It's also worth mentioning that Orthodox Judaism forbids cremation and everybody is buried.

The funeral can be divided into three parts.

  • Prayers said before the burial.
  • The burial.
  • Prayers said after the burial.

Things to know in advance

The funeral is usually held very shortly after the death - usually the same day or the next day. There are reasons for this that are related to Halachah (Jewish Law), and also practical reasons. The primary concern for the mourners is getting the body buried (and in fact they aren't bound by any "positive" commandments until that point - so, for example, they don't have to pray, but they can't go and eat a cheeseburger). From a practical point of view, with Jews coming from hot climates, you really don't want to have a dead body sitting around for too long.

The funeral will last one to two hours from start to finish.

One should dress smartly for a Jewish funeral - men in suits and possibly ties, and ladies in skirts below the knees and appropriate tops. There is no requirement to wear black. Most of the prayers will be in Hebrew, although many cemeteries have prayer books with an English translation. Men should cover their heads. Again, many cemeteries will have a few spare Kippot (aka yarmulkes) for any men who don't have one.

In some (primarily Ultra-Orthodox) communities, women don't attend funerals, but this isn't common (rikmeister says this could be a niddah issue, so all women are barred to avoid having to ask - but as I say, this isn't very common outside the ultra-orthodox community). Men and women, however, will stand separately in the prayer hall. There's not usually a formal barrier, but it will be men on one side and women on the other.

Prayers said before the burial

Everybody who has come to the funeral will start gathering outside the prayer hall at the cemetery (often called the "Ohel Hayim" - literally the "Hall of Life"). When the body has been brought in by the Chevra Kadisha, everybody will be called inside.

Any man above the age of Bar Mitzvah and who is a Cohen won't go into the main room, as the Cohanim are forbidden from being in a room with a dead body except for an immediate relative. Most cemeteries have separate rooms next door, often with a radio microphone link between them (even a wired microphone link can be considered too much of a link).

Often a Rabbi will lead the prayers although technically there is no need for this. The prayers said at this stage aren't comforting the mourners - what is the point of trying to comfort them when their loved one is lying there. Instead, these prayers are concerned with wishing the soul of the departed person a speedy entrance to Heaven. The mourners recite the Kaddish prayer, and often the Rabbi will then give a eulogy.

Once this is completed, everybody heads out towards the actual cemetery.

The Burial

Not surprisingly, some cemeteries are very large, and most will provide transport (in the form of a golf buggy or of the like) for people who can't walk. If you can walk, look at the stones as you go by.

Although variation in the headstones is allowed, in general they are much more uniform than Christian cemeteries. They will all be about the same size. This is part of the idea that all people are equal in death (and for the same reason, all Jews are buried in plain coffins, wrapped in a plain white burial robe). In general, flowers aren't left on Jewish graves. However, you will often see a small pile of pebbles on the stone. There is a strong tradition to leave a pebble on a grave when you visit it, so there are often pebbles on the grave around the Yahrzeit (the anniversary of the death), and also around Rosh Hashanah when it is traditional to visit the graves of your parents.

Of course it is inappropriate to be joking and shouting while walking to the grave, but it isn't necessary to be dead silent.

Once you arrive at the grave, the hole should already have been dug. A few more prayers are said and the coffin is lowered into the grave. There will, of course, be a large pile of soil that was dug out of the hole, and there will be a few shovels in it. It is traditional for all Jewish men to assist in filling in the grave.

Everybody then heads back to the prayer hall. When you get back, most people will wash their hands and there are usually facilities for doing this. It is also seen as a very auspicious time to give to charity and there are often boxes present.

Prayers said after the Burial

Once everybody gets back into the hall (including the Cohanim as the body is no longer there), there are further prayers said, this time comforting the mourners.

The traditional "greeting" is HaMakon Yenachem EtChem, B'Toch Sh'Ar Avelei Zion V'Yerushaliyim which means "May G-D comfort you, along with the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem". Sometimes everybody present will form two lines which the mourners will walk up and down while the greeting is recited, other times they will sit down and a line will form.

The relatives will then be Sitting Shiva for the week following.

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