"and to dust you shall return"
In the face of death we are confronted by powerful emotions and questions. It is at this time when Judaism gives us important rituals of mourning to perform, rituals which convey a sense of dignity. There is comfort and security in the knowledge that centuries of tradition lie behind each of these practices.
The Hebrew word for funeral is levayah, meaning accompanying, and in the Jewish tradition, family and community are responsible for burying their dead. The funeral and burial should take place as soon as possible, although there may be instances for delay. Funerals are not held on Shabbat; on the Festival Days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot; or on the High Holy Days. It can also be delayed to insure the attendance of family members and friends who may live some distance away. Ones presence at the funeral and burial honors the deceased. The bereaved also receive tremendous support from the communal solidarity.
K’riah is the Hebrew word for “tearing” and refers to a ritual in which clothing or a black ribbon is cut or torn as a sign of mourning. It symbolizes the tear in one’s heart at the death of a relative and is a visible sign of mourning to the community, inviting them to comfort the mourners. K’riah is always performed while standing to show strength at a time of grief. A cut is made on the left side over the heart for parents and on the right side for all other relatives. Sometimes people choose to express deep feelings of grief by cutting on the left side for relatives other than their parents. As the tear or cut is made, a prayer is recited. The torn garment or ribbon is worn for at least the seven days of shiva (not on Shabbat or Festival Days) and often for thirty days (shloshim) following the funeral.
The funeral service may take place in a funeral chapel or graveside at the cemetery. It is characterized by brevity and simplicity and designed for the honor and dignity of the deceased. It consists of prayers in both Hebrew and in English. Thehesped (eulogy) is delivered by the Rabbi, by members of the mourning family, and/or by friends. It will typically contain personal reminiscences and sometimes humorous anecdotes as well. Often the family will write down special memories they have of the deceased for the Rabbi to read. Hearing their own words can be comforting for the mourners. The El Malei Rachamim, (Hebrew for “God, full of compassion”) is also chanted. At the conclusion of the service, if the funeral is not held at the cemetery, the casket is carried to the hearse by the pallbearers for transport to the final resting place.
It is a great honor to be asked and a mitzvah to serve as a pallbearer. Members of the family and/or close friends are given this honor.
Nothing in Jewish Law prohibits a child from attending a funeral. The decision should be based on the child’s maturity and sense of whether or not the participation will be beneficial to the young person in expressing grief and in honoring the deceased.
The Talmud abounds with examples of funerals where various flowers were used for ornamentation. The logic of equality eventually effected a change to prevent the shame felt by the poor. The rabbinic position on flowers paralleled the decision to use plain wood caskets and simple white shrouds. Beginning in the Middle Ages, most Jews gave tzedakah (a donation) to a worthy charitable institution in place of flowers, most appropriately a charity dear to the heart of the deceased.
When the deceased arrives at the burial site, the pallbearers remove the casket from the hearse, and with the Rabbi leading the procession, begin their walk to the grave. The procession may pause seven times on the way to the gravesite. During the procession, Psalm 91 is recited. This Psalm is also known as the “Song of the Spirit.” It expresses confidence that God will watch over us. The casket is then lowered into the grave. Brief memorial prayers are repeated. Earth is shoveled onto the casket.
As mourners and friends fill the grave with earth, the absolute reality of the situation becomes very clear. As this is done, the shovel is usually not passed directly from one person to the next, but is placed in the mound of earth next to the grave before being picked up each time. Members of the family begin, using only the back of the shovel so as not to give the impression of wishing to say “goodbye” too quickly. The Kaddish is then recited by the immediate mourners (mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter or spouse) and the community. This prayer is a hymn of praise to God, a declaration of faith and sanctification of God’s name. In addition to providing comfort and bereavement fellowship, it is also a generational link.
When leaving the cemetery, members of the community traditionally form two lines and as the bereaved pass between them, they recite the following words: “May God comfort you with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This custom marks the family’s transition into a state of formal mourning.
Some people wash their hands before leaving the cemetery as a symbol of purification. This also may be done before entering the house of mourning.