The Mitzvah of Burial
Respecting the Dignity of the Deceased
Respectful treatment of the recently deceased and a prompt burial is one of the greatest mitzvahs, or commandments, of the Jewish faith. The deceased is carefully handled to preserve the integrity of the body, and burial must take place as soon as possible. “The in-between state is most difficult for the soul, as it has no body with which to relate to our world, and neither is it free of its tenuous bonds to our world to see things from the purely spiritual perspective,” explains Chabad.org. By returning the physical body to the earth as soon as possible, the soul is more easily able to return to the Source from which it is drawn.
The Torah forbids leaving a body unburied overnight; it’s thought to be a sign of great disrespect and a humiliation to the deceased. The Jewish Burial Society notes that in Jerusalem, same-day burials are strictly enforced, but in western countries some special allowances are made for burial delay including:
- The need to wait for the delivery of shrouds or a proper casket.
- Waiting for the arrival of the eulogizing rabbi.
- Allowing close relatives time to travel to town.
- Postponement until Sabbath has passed, as burials must not take place on Sabbath.
- Funerals generally are not held on festival days: Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, the first/second/last days of other festivals, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.
- Government regulations requiring a postmortem examination, completion of documentation, etc.
The Preparation and Purification of the Body
Throughout Jewish history, every Jewish community in the world has established a Chevra Kadisha–a “Holy Society” whose sole purpose is to ensure the dignity of the deceased person, according to Jewish law, customs and tradition. It is said that the greatest act of kindness we can do, is to do something where the recipient cannot repay the kindness. G’milut Chasadim (the giving of loving kindness). A deceased person can never say thank you. The Sages of the Talmud teach that the act of loving kindness is held in higher regard than Tzedakah (Charity). The work of the Chevra Kadisha is referred to as a “chesed shel emet--a good deed of truth.”
At the heart of the Holy Society’s hands is to perform Tahara, or purification, where always the dignity and honor of your loved one is maintained. The body is ritually cleansed and then dressed in a simple white cotton, linen or muslin (natural fabric) shroud.
Rabbi Gamliel in the 2nd century CE, gave one of the reasons to be buried in a shroud. He said it protects the poor from the embarrassment of not being able to afford fancy attire for burial.
Other reasons given is that it reminds us of the Kohanim or the Kohen Gadol-the High Priest of the Temple, holding the holiest position in Judaism, dressed in white, for purity and simplicity. Some have even suggested that the deceased is bedecked as a bride or a groom.
After the body is dressed and laid in the casket, a small bag of earth from Israel is placed with the deceased as a reminder of the Biblical verse “For you are dust, and to dust shall you return.”
Some men and now women may choose to be buried with their Tallit, or prayer shawl.
The Funeral Procession
The Levayah (“accompaniment”) of the body to its resting place is one more way in which Jewish mourners show respect to the deceased. The Hebrew word levayah also denotes “joining” and “bonding,” so the funeral procession is a deeply symbolic way to affirm that those who loved the deceased are still and forever joined together by “the fundamental Divine essence that all souls share.” Mourners also believe that by participating in the levayah and escorting the deceased to the gravesite, the soul is comforted as it undergoes the difficult transition from one life to another. This is usually performed by walking behind the coffin to accompany it to the hearse, or at the cemetery as the coffin is carried from the hearse to the gravesite.
A Return to Earth From Which it Came
Jewish law requires that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth. For this reason, cremation, autopsies and embalming are forbidden. The natural process of decomposition must occur so that the body can reunite with the soil from which it was formed. This also allows the soul to return to its Source more quickly. Open-casket funerals or any display of the deceased is forbidden and seen as a violation of the deceased’s dignity and privacy. According to Chabad.org, Jewish tradition states that, if possible, only fellow Jews should handle the body of a deceased Jew, carry the casket, and lower it into the earth. The eulogy (Hesped) focuses on the best traits of the deceased and contains examples of the good that he or she did in life. At the burial’s conclusion, the top of the coffin is often completely covered with earth thrown by the hands of Jews in attendance.
Simplicity and Democracy in Death
The casketless funeral was instituted by rabbis to reflect the fact that human beings are created equal in both life and death. The simple burial coupled with the wearing of a plain, white shroud also acts as a financial equalizer, saving the bereaved family from having to spend more on funeral costs than is affordable.
The spirit of these ancient traditions is kept alive today by many of the Jewish faith. Embalming, cremation and entombment in a mausoleum are prohibited. The body must be buried in the ground. Because a casket is mandatory in many western countries, Jews retain the intent of the original custom by ensuring the “aron” (Hebrew for “coffin”) is made completely from simple, decomposable wood. As the coffin decomposes over time, it allows the body to return to its source. Often there are holes in the bottom to facilitate rapid decomposition, and Jewish families may request perforated or partial grave liners instead of concrete so that the coffin makes contact with the earth.
The interior of the coffin is typically as plain and unadorned as the exterior, lacking plush lining. It’s traditional for the body to be buried with only a prayer shawl and sometimes soil from Israel, but without personal effects or mementos. The deceased is clothed in a white linen shroud and placed inside the casket face-up with open hands, symbolizing the idea that we come into the world with nothing and we leave with nothing; another reinforcement of the equality of all people. Jewish tradition prohibits open-casket funerals, viewing them as disrespectful to the deceased. You won’t find flowers adorning a Jewish casket since they denote a more joyous occasion.
The Sacred Jewish Tradition of Casketless Funerals
“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19
Taking inspiration from the above scripture, the ancient Jewish burial tradition found the deceased lowered into the ground without a casket, shrouded in a simple cloth or burlap covering. The person’s life cycle was viewed as complete, and the body was lovingly surrendered and returned to the earth from which it came. This coffin less burial custom is still practiced in Israel today, apart from state and military funerals.
Reclaiming Traditional Burial Rites
The growing popularity of natural, or green, burials is allowing Jewish people to reclaim the ancient tradition of casket less burial. Low-impact burials are desirable for many people who prefer an eco-friendly, less toxic alternative that reduces energy and resource consumption.
Bodies are lowered into the ground using a specially designed biodegradable board and are allowed direct contact with the earth, thanks to the absence of a coffin or grave liner. This is in full accordance with the Jewish principle of returning the body to nourish the earth and renew the cycle of life. According to the Green Burial Council (GBC), “the number of GBC-approved providers (funeral homes, cemeteries and product providers) in North America has grown from 1 in 2006 to more than 300 today, operating in 41 states and 6 provinces of Canada.” As the demand for environmentally friendly burials grows and more cemeteries set aside land for green, coffinless burials, people of the Jewish faith can hope to enjoy a return to the sacred traditional burial rites. Some Jews believe that decomposition is the final step in the soul separating from the body.
Traditional Jewish Funeral Elements
Here you will find a list of common elements found in a traditional Jewish funeral.
In Judaism, a mourner is the spouse, parent, sibling or child of the deceased. Other family members and friends, although not technically considered mourners, can still observe any mourning rituals they wish to participate in. From the time of death until the burial, a mourner is considered an “Onen.” While handling the loss of their loved one, Onens must still finalize the funeral details in such a short time. This is the time to breathe, find peace and strength and know that our family is here to support your family.
Jewish funerals, if at graveside, are relatively short and usually consist of Readings, Psalms, Prayers and a eulogy. If a memorial service in a Synagogue, Temple or Chapel, it could be longer with more speakers sharing memories of the deceased.
Historically, shemira was a form of guard duty, to prevent the desecration of the body prior to burial. The shomrim sit and read aloud comforting psalms during the time that they are watching the body. This serves as a comfort for both the spirit of the departed who is in transition and the shomer or shomeret. According to Jewish tradition, immediately following a death, the deceased should not be left unattended. A Shomer, or “watchman,” stays with the deceased from the time of death until burial. It is common for the Shomer to be a member of the family a close friend, or a member of the Jewish Community. Should a Shomer not be available, then the Houston Jewish Funerals staff is available to act as your loved one's “watchman.”
Jewish mourners may choose to perform a K’riah, or “rending of the garment” before the service. This ancient custom is symbolic of the tear in the mourner’s heart. Traditionally the mourner’s clothing is torn. Modern mourners often wear a black ribbon instead. K’riah is always performed standing. The act of standing shows strength at a time of grief. If you are mourning a parent, the ribbon is worn on your left side closer to your heart, on the right side for all other relatives. Sometimes, people may choose to express deep feelings of grief by wearing the torn ribbon on their left side for relatives other than their parents.
As the tear or cut is made, the mourners recite the following blessing:
Barukah atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam dayan ha’emt.
Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, Ruler of the Universe, the True Judge.
The torn garment or ribbon is worn during the seven days of Shiva, but not on Shabbat and Festival Days. When mourning the loss of a parent, it is worn for the thirty days of shloshim.
One of the oldest and most meaningful Jewish funeral traditions is the Seudat Hara’ah. Upon returning to the house of mourning following the burial, the community provides the family’s first meal. This meal of condolence, called the Seudat Hara’ah, sets the tone of Shiva and makes sure the family is taken care of during their mourning period. Eggs or bagels are traditionally served to symbolize the continuity of life.
Scheduling the Funeral
After contacting Houston Jewish Funerals, you should contact your local rabbi. The rabbi will set a date and time for the funeral service. Many congregations will allow services in their temples. If you are having a bigger funeral, consider having a graveside service at the cemetery. Traditional Jewish funerals are usually as soon as possible, but this can vary based on a family's circumstances.
Shiva, meaning “seven,” is the seven-day mourning period following burial. During Shiva, mourners should remain at home, while their community comes to the home to take care of the mourners, attend services and say Kaddish. The atmosphere of the house should be one of dignity and remembrance.
Jewish scholars say that it is disrespectful to look at a person who cannot look back. Therefore, a Jewish funeral has a closed casket without a viewing.
Unless local laws require, Jewish burials do not embalm. Your funeral director will be able to tell you if there are any laws that may require embalming.
Shloshim, which means “thirty” in Hebrew, is the thirty days following the burial. Shiva is the first seven days of Shloshim. After Shiva, Shloshim is the time when mourners return to their regular lives.
The Chevra Kadisha
The Chevra Kadisha or “sacred society” is a group of Jewish men and women who prepare the deceased for burial according to Jewish tradition. They perform the loving act of Taharah, the ritual cleansing of the body and dressing in a white shroud. Respect and dignity of your loved one is maintained at all times.
Yahrzeit is the annual anniversary of a loved one’s passing on the Hebrew calendar. The yahrzeit is observed by lighting a 24-hour candle and reciting the Kaddish. Most congregations will announce any Yahrzeits during Shabbat services.
Jewish funerals use simple wooden caskets made without metal parts. Houston Jewish Funerals has a variety of traditional caskets that families may choose from.
In Judaism, graves must be marked with a simple headstone, or Matzava. Although it is not required to have an unveiling or dedication service, many families choose to have some sort of ceremony when the grave marker is put in place. Traditionally, the headstone can be put into place anytime after Shloshim, but most families choose a time close to the first yahrzeit.
Most traditional Jewish funerals do not have flowers, however, many Reform and Conservative Jews choose to have a few flowers present for the service. Most rabbis will not object to a small floral tribute on the casket but will object to having the entire casket surrounded by flowers.
Visiting the Grave
Judaism teaches that mourners should not show excessive grief while visiting their loved one’s grave, should not visit the grave until after Shiva, and should not visit other graves in the same cemetery.
Traditionally, Jewish funerals use burial. Mourners symbolically participate in the burial process by placing a few shovels of earth onto the casket. This ritual is known as “the Chesed Shel Emet,” the ultimate act of love and kindness. After the casket is buried, mourners recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and form a Shura. A Shura is a double line where funeral-goers face each other, forming a pathway through which the mourners pass to receive words of comfort.