Jewish funeral service
We cater for all cultures and religions at Co-op Funeral Directors, including the Jewish faith.
This article describes some of what is involved in a Jewish funeral, and discusses Jewish beliefs in death and the afterlife. If you require assistance with organising a Jewish burial or cremation, please contact our team who can help.
The Jewish Way of Death
Today in the UK there are several denominations of Judaism; the most popular being Orthodox, the centrists often known as Modern Orthodox, and the Liberal and Reform movements.
Each has a variation in rituals and customs, but whichever denomination their belief falls within, the Jewish way of death remains the same.
Jews believe in one God, and in an afterlife in which God will revive the dead. They believe the soul inhabits the body and that when a person dies the spirit returns to God.
It is for this reason that it is of utmost importance that a Jewish funeral occurs as soon as possible after death, as the body’s “returning to earth“ is tied to the soul’s ability to return to God. Jewish funerals are therefore customarily held within 24 hours of a person’s death (or even on the same day if that is possible). Occasionally a religious festival, or death taking place on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday), may mean there has to be a brief delay.
Jewish life is based around community and central to the faith is the act of ‘mitzvah’ – doing good deeds for others. The final act of caring – the final mitzvah – for a Jew is to accompany the body of the deceased from the moment of death to its resting place and to participate in the burial.
Venue for the funeral
Jewish law is unequivocal in stating the body be returned to earth in its entirety. Orthodox Jews insist on the integrity of the body and that is why cremation is not acceptable. Orthodox Jews believe interment in the earth is integral to the future resurrection of the dead and that is why a person must be buried in the earth without any interference to the body. However, Liberal and Reform Jewish traditions increasingly accept cremations, but these too are carried out within a day of the person’s death if possible.
Autopsies (post-mortems) are considered to violate the body’s integrity and are forbidden, except in extreme circumstances and dependent on rabbinical consultation.
After the moment of death, the deceased body is never left unattended and either family members or the local ‘Chevra Kadisha’ will accompany the body until burial.
In all circumstances a Jew should be buried by Jews, among fellow Jews, in a Jewish cemetery.
Traditional Jewish rituals
In the Orthodox tradition two important steps must precede the actual burial: these are the ‘Taharah’, which means the purification, and the funeral service which is called the ‘Levayah’.
The Taharah (pronounced like the Sahara Desert but with a T) is a ritual cleaning process which is carried out not by the family but by dedicated men and women who prepare the body for internment. These people are known as the Chevra Kadisha. They clean and groom the body and water is ritually poured over it. With the Taharah, it is acknowledged with dignity that life resonated in the body and still leaves traces on it. After purification, the deceased in dressed in special white clothes (known as ‘tachrichim’) to signify purity and holiness. A Jewish man is wrapped in his prayer shawl (or ‘tallit’).
Because Judaism says all people are equal before God in death, coffins are basic wooden biers and there is no tradition of flowers either on the coffin or at the graveside.
Basic Components of the Jewish Funeral
In England, Jewish Funerals (or Lavayahs) usually take place in a Jewish cemetery. These are mainly located in London and other big cities where there is a Jewish community such as Manchester and Liverpool. Colchester has a Jewish cemetery area within the main Colchester cemetery.
Jewish funeral services do not take place in synagogues, except in really exceptional circumstances.
Prior to the funeral service or burial, first-degree relatives are obligated to express their sorrow by tearing their clothes over the hearts. This is usually done at the beginning of the funeral service.
The Lavayah is seen as a show of respect to the deceased. Even as a soul’s departure is mourned, Jews also rejoice in the fundamental divine essence that all souls share. By taking part in the Lavayah, Jews provide comfort to the deceased’s soul as it makes the transition from one life to another.
The funeral service can be led by any Jew if a Rabbi is not available. There is a short and very ancient service which always takes the same form. Sometimes there is a eulogy held in the cemetery’s chapel and then the body is wheeled out to the burial place with the family following to provide honour and comfort to the deceased. This way the deceased is “escorted” to the final resting place.
At the graveside it is considered a great mitzvah to physically participate in the burial and so handfuls of earth are thrown in by fellow Jews.
In some Orthodox traditions women are not present at the graveside and so in that case, only men can throw in the earth.
The coffin is completely covered in earth and an ancient and powerful burial prayer, known as the Kaddish, is said immediately at the graveside.
After the funeral
The mourning process and extending comfort to the mourners begins immediately after the burial.
A traditional seven-day mourning period known as the ‘Shivah’ begins immediately after the Lavayah, with a special meal held at a venue chosen by the close family;
this is usually in a home belonging either to the deceased, or to a close family member.
The tradition of staying at home during the entire period of the Shivah is in part because of the need to express private grief and also because of the prohibition from doing any work or any pleasurable activity during the seven days. The chief mourners will sit for the seven days during which time friends and family have a moral duty to visit to comfort the family. Special prayers are held in the home during that time.
It is an ancient tradition that first-line mourners do not sit upon chairs of normal height during the Shivah; the closest family mourners “sit to the earth” by sitting on a footstool or a special chair, lower than that of normal seating. The tradition marks the departure from normal life during the early days of bereavement.
During the Shivah period, candles in memory of the deceased are kept lit for the entire seven days as a symbol of the deceased person and to represent, through the flame, the movement of the soul towards God. There is an ancient tradition of covering mirrors as vanity is not required during a Shivah and perhaps because Jews do not permit any images of God in a holy place – and for the Shivah period, the home becomes a holy place.
A range of symbolic food is often eaten, such as eggs (which represent the circle of life) along with other circular food and salty herrings (which represent tears).
In Orthodox communities, an extended period of mourning is common and adult children (over 13 years) will recite the Kaddish prayer to their parents over a full calendar year. From then, it is recited on the anniversary of the death by close relatives each year.