Deeply rooted in centuries of tradition, Jewish funerals follow customs that come from teachings of the Torah. These time-honored traditions provide comfort and support for the grieving. A Jewish funeral is called levaya—a Hebrew word that indicates a loved one will be escorted or accompanied to the grave. The bereaved are the family and friends who ensure the loved one has been respectfully laid to rest.
Beyond the funeral are uniquely structured mourning periods to remember a loved one and support friends and family in deep grief. As the community grieves together, they heal together.
If you’re unfamiliar with Jewish funeral and burial customs, you may have questions. The answers below will help.
What’s the importance of death and mourning in Judaism?
While life is to be embraced, death is accepted as inevitable. In Judaism, it’s believed there will be life for the soul after death. Some believe there will be a resurrection, while others believe that souls return to their creator. For the bereaved, there’s a set order for mourning that provides time to remember and celebrate life while going through the healing process.
Some people choose to plan their funerals in advance as a mitzvah, or a good deed done for their family. Planning ahead ensures that your family won’t be burdened by the cost or many decisions that come along with a funeral while they are feeling their loss. Instead, your loved ones can focus on grieving and supporting one another.
How long after death does a Jewish funeral usually take place?
A Jewish funeral often takes place very soon—traditionally within 24 hours. Why do Jewish funerals happen so quickly? Embalming is not part of the Jewish burial tradition. These days, though a quick burial would be ideal, it’s not always possible to move so quickly. Modern families are usually scattered about the country, so a day or two may be allowed for travel. It also takes time to prepare the loved one for burial and to notify the community.
How long are Jewish funerals?
Jewish funerals generally last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the number of speakers. There’s no conversation leading up to the service. Traditionally, a rabbi officiates the service and recites prayers, and psalms, and invites family members and friends to deliver eulogies. Following the interment, the immediate mourners return home to begin the period. Friends and family will visit them, bring food, offer comfort and share stories.
The mourning period continues with the 30-day period of sheloshim, followed by Shnat ha-evel, a yearlong mourning period for those who’ve lost a parent. Yahrzeit observes the anniversary of a loved one’s passing.
What happens during a Jewish funeral service?
Traditionally, after the death of a Jewish loved one, the chevra kadisha performs a tahara, or ritual washing; dresses the deceased in a shroud; and places them in a wooden casket. A funeral service may take place in a synagogue, funeral home or at the cemetery. The loved one’s spouse, parents, children and siblings stay near the casket while guests arrive. Jewish funerals do not include a viewing, out of respect for the deceased. Guests stand until the mourners are seated.
Then, immediate family—parents, spouse, children, siblings—will cut cloth with the rabbi prior to the funeral ceremony. Known as kriah, it’s a tradition that signifies the family’s grief and torn heart. During the ceremony, the rabbi leads all mourners in the recitation of prayers and psalms, such as Psalm 23 and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Family members may deliver eulogies.
Following the service, the interment takes place at the cemetery with concluding prayers and the shoveling of earth.
What happens at a Jewish burial?
There are as many Jewish burial traditions as there are Jewish people, but most uphold the belief that the body must be returned as quickly and as naturally as possible to the earth from which it was created.
Deceased loved ones are typically buried in Jewish cemeteries or in Jewish sections of cemeteries. Typically, only a member of the Jewish faith can officiate and oversee a burial.
During the interment, the casket is lowered into the ground, and the rabbi, family members and friends will fill the grave with dirt. Before leaving the cemetery, guests form two lines; the immediate family walks through the lines while those in line recite a prayer of condolence. Family and friends then go to the family’s home for shiva.
Any time after 30 days, the family may erect a monument at the gravesite and have a formal unveiling. Following that, mourners may wish to visit the grave for yahrzeit, Yizkor and throughout the year, leaving stones atop the monument to signify they were there.
What should I wear to a Jewish funeral?
If you’re attending a Jewish funeral, dress modestly and in dark colors. Men may wear suits or a sport coat and tie with dress pants. Women usually wear dresses or skirts that fall below the knee. Fashion and tradition are ever-evolving. In some communities, pants may be OK for women, but it’s usually more appropriate to stick to a dress or skirt.
If the funeral takes place in a synagogue, men of all religions may be required to wear a head covering or yarmulke. Don’t fret if you don’t have one—they’re usually provided. On some occasions, women may be required to wear scarves on their heads. If they’re required, they’re also usually provided.
What is shiva?
Shiva, or seven, refers to the traditional Jewish mourning period. During this time, mourners are meant to focus on their grief and not on their outward appearances or comfort. Mirrors are covered, grooming is prohibited, and low stools are used for seating.
Those visiting a house of shiva to show support to the grieving family during this difficult time usually stay for only a short while, take food or other condolence items and share stories about the deceased loved one.
What should I take or send to a Jewish funeral or shiva?
Though flowers are a wonderful way to express kindness, they aren’t part of Jewish funeral customs. Traditionally, those visiting a house of shiva take food. If you do so, it’s important to ensure the food is kosher certified if the home is kosher. There’s often a friend or family member who acts as a shiva coordinator and can recommend a charitable organization for donations. Another condolence idea is to have a tree planted in Israel in the loved one’s name.
How can I plan a Jewish funeral?
If you’re looking to plan a Jewish funeral, we can help. Dignity Memorial® professionals understand the unique customs and traditions of the Jewish faith, and we will work closely with your family to honor them. Reach out if you have an immediate need or to discuss planning ahead.