Death & Bereavement in Judaism: Funeral Service and Burial
Jewish law requires that the dead be buried within twenty-four hours after death and it is traditional for the funeral service and burial to be arranged promptly to pay respect for the dead and the family of the deceased.
A delay in the burial to allow for preparation of the body and coffin, the arrival of relatives or for a Jewish holiday to pass are allowed, but this delay must not extend more than three days. A burial may also be delayed if a death occurs on Shabbat, Yom Kippur or the first day of major 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 for one's parents, spouse, children and siblings customarily participates in the rite of k'riah, rending of graments, just prior to the funeral service. This consists of tearing a visible piece of clothing which is then worn throughout the seven-day period of shiva, except on Shabbat. Some people extend this custom to wear the torn clothing for all of sheloshim, the thirty days following burial.
A mourner is exempt from performing all religious duties from the time of a loved one's 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. The service often begins with the reciting of specific prayers, often psalms 23 and psalms 121. The core part of the funeral service is the eulogy, often given by a close friend or family member who can provide the deceased with their last sign of respect. The singing of El Malei Rachamim, a hymn that asks God to watch over the deceased and grant them peace, usually closes the service.
The coffin is then carried to the grave site by honored pallbearers - usually close friends and relatives but not immediate family. On the route to the grave site, the pallbearers and mourners pause at least seven times 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 shivah week, except on Shabbat. Flowers for the deceased is usually not appropiate in Jewish households though offering to sponsor meals is a widely accepted custom.
Sources: 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.