Funerary customs are traditionally coordinated in Jewish communities by a Chevra Kaddisha, a holy society, comprised of volunteers to aid the bereaved and to ensure that appropriate practices are followed. Assisting in funeral and burial preparations is a highly-valued mitzvah. It is a chesed shel emet, a true act of kindness performed without ulterior motive, for the dead cannot repay this service.
When a member of a community dies, it is the community’s responsibility to lovingly assist the deceased’s family in this final act of respect. In this spirit, the Synagogue’s Chevra has prepared this basic guide to provide essential information concerning Jewish death, funeral and mourning practices.
The rabbi is available to assist all members when death occurs. The congregation’s staff and leadership are able to contact the Rabbi (or an alternate if the Rabbi is unavailable) at all times. The Rabbi prefers to be contacted prior to contacting a funeral home or making other funeral commitments in order to counsel the bereaved family concerning traditional Jewish practices.
The synagogue has contracted with a local funeral home for a simple traditional Jewish funeral at a predetermined cost. See www.jewish-funerals.org.
The Synagogue encourages families to hold traditional funerals in the Meeting House. A traditional funeral includes taharah, tachrichim, a closed wooden casket and a Jewish service devoid of flowers. The Synagogue staff and the Chevra Kadisha will assist the family in making arrangements.
The Chevra is prepared to assist families in making arrangements with a funeral home, and to advise them concerning traditional practices and requirements.
The Synagogue staff and Chevra will arrange for taharah, tachrichim, and at the request of the family, identify a coordinator for the condolence meal and a leader for shiva services.
K’RIA – RENDING OF GARMENTS
Mourners for parents, spouses, children and siblings traditionally participate in the rite of k’ria (rending of garments) usually just prior to the funeral service. This rite consists of tearing a visible portion of clothing (lapel, pocket, or collar, for example). The torn garment is worn throughout the 30-day mourning period (shloshim) except on the Sabbath.
Funeral services may be held in the synagogue, in a funeral home or at the gravesite. The funeral service is usually brief and simple. It usually includes the chanting of psalms and Eil Malei Rachamim (the traditional memorial prayer), and a hesped (eulogy) honoring the deceased. Fraternal ceremonies and instrumental music are not appropriate.
PALL AND PALLBEARERS
At a funeral the coffin is often covered with a specially-prepared cloth called a pall, and is borne from the funeral service to the burial by family or friends (pallbearers) selected by the mourners.
CONDOLENCE CALLS BEFORE BURIAL
During the period from death until burial, the mourner (called an onen during this period) is exempt from performing all religious duties. Condolence calls should be made after the funeral during the shiva week except on the Sabbath.
VIEWING THE BODY
Viewing the body either publicly or privately is contrary to Jewish tradition.
Flowers are not appropriate. Friends and associates of the deceased who wish to show a concrete expression of condolence should be encouraged to contribute to a charity of importance to the deceased.
CARRYING THE COFFIN
The pallbearers customarily stop several times while carrying the coffin to the grave. The coffin precedes the mourners, family and friends as a mark of respect.
K’VURA – BURIAL
In traditional practice, the casket is lowered into the ground and the grave filled, with first the family and then others shoveling earth onto the casket. Members of the Chevrah will often stay and finish filling the grave. A short service including Kaddish is recited at the grave after the casket is lowered or after k’vura is completed.
LEAVING THE CEMETERY
It is customary for the mourners to pass between two rows of the others in attendance to receive traditional expressions of consolation. After burial, it is also traditional to wash one’s hands after leaving the cemetery or before entering the house of mourning. This washing is an affirmation of life after involvement with death.
SHIVA – THE FIRST SEVEN DAYS
Shiva is the seven-day period of intensive mourning observed by the immediate family of the deceased beginning on the day of burial. The mourners include anyone whose parent, spouse, child or sibling has died. During the entire shiva period mourners are encouraged to stay away from work or school to remain at home, and to contemplate the meaning of life and the manner in which adjustment will be made to the death of the beloved.
Public mourning observances are suspended on the Sabbath in view of the belief that the sanctity and serenity of this day supersedes personal grief. Mourners are permitted, indeed encouraged, to attend Sabbath services; but they are not given an aliyah, do not conduct the services and the k’ria is not displayed publicly. A major festival terminates shiva (for details consult the rabbi). Since Judaism teaches that the feeling of loss of a human life is not limited to the deceased’s family alone, but is shared by the entire community, it is customary at our synagogue for the name of the deceased to be read at a Sabbath service after the funeral.
It is customary for family and friends to arrange for a condolence meal (which traditionally includes round foods such as eggs) to be served to the mourners at the house of mourning when they return from the cemetery. The mourners should not serve as hosts or otherwise entertain their visitors.
It is customary, as symbols of mourning, for the mirrors in the shiva home to be covered, for the mourners to be provided with lower chairs on which to sit, for a seven-day memorial candle to be kindled, and for the mourners to refrain from wearing leather shoes and from shaving. Greetings between mourners and visitors are not normally exchanged.
It is also customary for the mourners to participate in evening services in the shiva home during the seven days, except on the Sabbath when mourners attend synagogue services. The mourners may conduct these home services or may designate others to do so. If requested by the family the Chevra Kadisha will assist in providing for such services.
SHLOSHIM – THE FIRST THIRTY DAYS
During the thirty days following burial (except shiva) mourners return to work and normal activities, but refrain from public entertainment or social activities. The k’ria is customarily worn during shloshim. In place of home services, mourners attend synagogue services daily to recite kaddish.
SHANNA – THE FIRST YEAR
Mourners for deceased parents continue to attend services daily to recite kaddish for eleven months, and continue to refrain from celebratory activities for a full year.
YAHRZEIT – ANNIVERSARY OF DEATH
The kaddish is recited each year on the anniversary of death (not burial).
YIZKOR – MEMORIAL PRAYERS
Yizkor prayers are recited on Yom Kippur, Sh’mni Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot and should be recited beginning with the first Holy Day after death.
CJC participates in a contract with one local funeral home for utilization of the facilities for the conduct of traditional Jewish funerals at a predetermined, very low price. We do not have a contract with other establishments for specified services at a predetermined cost. However, owners of other funeral homes have indicated that fully traditional services and equipment are available if requested by families.
Below is a listing of books on Jewish aspects of death and dying. Also see www.Jewish-funerals.org.
Our committee is most eager to add concerned and interested volunteers to its subcommittees on:
For more information or assistance from the Chevra Kaddisha, call David Zinner, 410-733-3700.
Contact the synagogue office, 410-730-6044 to volunteer.