Funeral Service and Burial
By Ariel Scheib
Jewish law requires that the dead be buried within 24 hours after death. Yet, the preparation of the body and coffin, as well as the arrival of relatives, allows for a delay of the burial. Since a deceased body is customarily allowed to remain unburied for a short period (no longer than three days), the funeral service and burial is arranged promptly. This is to pay respect for the dead and the family of the deceased. This delay, however, can not extend more than three days. A burial may also be delayed due to Shabbat, Yom Kippur, and when a death falls on the first day of festivals. Furthermore, if two deaths occur simultaneously, a woman is always buried before a man, and a scholar is always buried before an average citizen.
A mourner may participate in the rite of k'riah (rending of graments) just prior to the funeral service; if mourning one's parents, spouse, children, and siblings. The rite consists of tearing a visible piece of clothing. This portion of clothing is worn throughout shloshim (the 30 days of mourning), except on Shabbat. The mourner is exempt from performing all religious duties from the time of death until the burial.
Today, most funeral services take place at the grave site or in a funeral home, followed by the burial of the body at the grave site. The funeral service often begins with the reciting of specific psalms, often psalms 23 (“The Lord is my Shepard”) and 121 (“I will lift up my eyes to the mountain”). The core part of the funeral service is the eulogy, which describes the positive characteristics of the deceased life. This eulogy is often given by a close friend or family member, one who can provide the deceased with their last sign of respect. The singing of El Malei Rachamim (God full of Compassion) often closes the service. This song asks God to watch over the deceased and grant them peace.
The coffin is then carried to the grave site by honored pallbearers often times close friends and relatives, but usually not immediate family. On the route to the grave site, the pallbearers and mourners often pause to lament and recite more psalms. This is symbolic of the mourners’ unwillingness to allow the deceased to pass on.
Once the procession reaches the grave site, the coffin is lowered into the ground. Each person then fulfills their mitzvah of helping to bury the dead by putting a small amount of dirt into the hole. After the coffin has been partially buried, all those present recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. At that time, those not in the immediate mourning family form two lines out of the cemetery offering condolences to the relatives. Once the service has been completed, it is customary to wash one’s hands, symbolizing the return to purity.
Friends and associates of the deceased may make condolence calls after the funeral during the sivah week, except on Shabbat. Flowers for the deceased is not appropiate.
Source: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004; Kolatch, Alfred J. The Jewish Book of Why/The Second Jewish Book of Why. NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1989.