Since you're here, we’re guessing a loved one has died, or is very ill. We’re sorry for your loss, and we truly hope that some of the wisdom you find will ease your pain a little. The traditions make a lot of sense, and the rules and guidelines will help you know what to do next when you’re grieving and probably feeling overwhelmed. This section is broken into two sections: Before the funeral, which are the things that you need to know right away, and mourning, which starts at the funeral. Even if you’ve never done much, or any, Jewish before and no matter what you believe when it comes to God or Spirit or whatever, we hope you find comfort in knowing that generations before you have followed these same traditions, and they really do help.
The truth is, Jews do death really well.
Jewish funeral traditions are rooted in respect for the dead, from the time of death through burial. If you don’t have a rabbi, start by calling a Jewish funeral home, because you’re going to need some help. Burials are supposed to take place within 24 hours, so this part moves quickly. The exceptions are Shabbat (we’re not supposed to have funerals during Shabbat) or if family members need time to travel. TBH, it’s good that this part moves fast. Think about it like this — if your dad died, you’re probably sad and distressed, but instead of being able to focus on your loss, you’re trying to figure out who can/can’t get to the ceremony in time, flight arrangements, black clothes, food, who should speak at the ceremony, who shouldn’t, etc. Once the funeral is over, you can finally take a deep breath and start to really mourn your loss, which starts right after the burial. First, there’s guarding and watching the body: This is the tradition of staying with someone who has died from the moment of death until they are buried, called shemira. The people who do this are called shomers. Jewish funeral homes will supply the shomer. In the olden days, this was to keep the body safe from thieves and rodents. Today it’s about that respect for the deceased. Being a shomer is considered the highest form of mitzvah, because you’re helping someone who can never repay your kindness. Also, it’s nice to know your loved one isn’t lying alone in some cold room. Then there’s the preparation for burial: The process starts with a specific order for washing and drying the body. Once the body is clean, it is typically wrapped in a white cotton shroud, also known as a kittel. Sometimes a tallit is used instead. Burial clothes are traditionally kept simple so that rich and poor people are all buried alike. This idea of simplicity is carried through traditions about death. Jews are not traditionally buried with items from their lives or in their favorite dress or anything like that. We come into this world without trappings and that is how we leave. It is actually quite beautiful. That is the reason that observant Jews don’t get tattoos or lots of body piercings. But, it is a myth that you can’t get buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have tattoos. We have not found this to be the case in any of our research. While we are busting myths, it’s also a myth that you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have been an organ donor. On the contrary, it is usually considered a mitzvah for a Jewish person to donate their organs. Are there traditions for the casket? Do you really have to ask? The idea of ashes to ashes, dust to dust is carried through a Jewish casket. They are generally made of soft wood with no metal parts, so they can decompose quickly. In the olden days, and sometimes still in Israel today, people were buried directly in the ground without a casket. Sometimes holes are drilled into the bottom of the casket so that the body touches the dirt. Bodies are supposed to decompose so that the soul can leave, which is why Jewish practice is not to embalm the dead. That’s also much better for the environment. What about cremation? Many Jews still prefer burial because cremation can be a sad reminder of the Holocaust. Others say that according to the Talmud, only a body that has composed naturally can be resurrected. (Resurrection? More on that later.) That said, cremation has become increasingly common, probably because it is less expensive and better for the environment.
A funeral is also a celebration of the deceased's life.
There’s a set format to most funerals, but you can still speak up about the service you would like to create to honor your loved one’s life. The service: Funeral services are usually a mix of prayers, readings, and eulogies or stories about the deceased. (The stories are our favorite part, especially when they are funny and honest.) The funeral is the official start of the mourning period, so the Mourner’s Kaddish and the Hebrew prayers for the dead are often recited. Music and singing aren’t traditional, but sometimes having music at a funeral can be exactly what’s needed to celebrate the life that was lived. Like so many public milestones, this is one where, if you have a vision of what you want, you should not be overly concerned with what the funeral director or the rabbi might think. Who participates: Family and close friends are typically given the honor of being a pallbearer and carrying the casket, although usually the pallbearers are not as much carrying the casket as they are walking alongside as it is rolled on a stand with wheels. Others might share a reading or a eulogy. People won’t have much time to prepare, but reassure them that this isn’t the Oscars, and the most important thing is that they say something from the heart. Even if you’re not part of the service, being there to show your respect and to support the family is what’s important. Where does the funeral take place? Sometimes the funeral is conducted at the cemetery, and sometimes it starts somewhere else, like someone’s home or a synagogue or funeral home, and ends at the cemetery. A lot of people will come for the ceremony but not continue to the burial, depending on where the burial is and how close people are to the deceased. If the person has been cremated and the ashes are not being scattered, the service can happen just about anywhere that feels right. The little black ribbons: It’s an old tradition that before the funeral begins, the closest family members (parents, children, siblings and spouses) tear some of their clothing to symbolize their grief, generally with the rabbi present. These days, even though it’s less dramatic, people usually wear a torn black ribbon instead. This custom comes from the idea that people used to tear their clothing when someone they loved died, because that kind of news makes people want to tear their clothes and break things. The idea that we’ve been doing and more importantly feeling the same thing for thousands of years is one of those cool things about Jewish history that makes us feel like we are part of something much bigger. The act of shoveling dirt onto the casket: At the end of the funeral, everyone is invited to shovel dirt into the grave, starting with the closest family members. To be honest, it is hard to listen to the sound of dirt hitting the casket, but it’s meaningful and powerful too. It also feels right instead of just walking away from the grave and letting a stranger cover the casket. Once you have thrown dirt on someone’s grave, there’s no denying the fact that they are gone. Now it’s time for mourners to get busy with the grieving and healing process. What happens next? The grave is given a temporary marker at the burial. The formal tombstone is placed later, at the unveiling (see below). Family, friends and anyone who wants to usually goes to the relative or friend’s home where shiva or mourning, will take place.
Is there music at a Jewish funeral? Up to you.
OK, so what’s shiva? It’s the seven-day mourning period, typically held for close relatives like father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister or spouse. But there’s no rule saying that a close friend of the deceased can’t sit shiva too, and they often do. So, basically, the loved ones of the person who died sit shiva, and the friends who come to visit those who are sitting are making a shiva call. Shiva, which is Hebrew for seven, starts right after the funeral. When you sit shiva in the traditional way, you stay at home. You don’t go to work, don’t go to the supermarket, you just stay home and people come to visit and comfort you. The idea of not doing anything else is to mourn in a big way for a certain period of time, and then after shiva is over you can rejoin the living. It’s not that people don’t continue missing the person who died, just that the full-time mourning period is over. Today, many Jews don’t sit shiva for a full seven days. But before you decide to cut shiva short, remember that it is also for the friends and associates who loved the person who died in addition to the close family. It is really poignant to pay a shiva call. How does it end? At the end of the seven days, or however long you sit, it’s traditional for friends and loved ones to accompany the mourners on a brief walk. Back in the old days this walk would symbolize reentry into the world and the neighbors could see that you are no longer sitting. It’s even common to go and do something mundane like go to the market and buy bread or something. The reason for this is because as you enter back into the real world, you want to ease yourself slowly by doing something relatively meaningless and easy. Remember, you are still fragile. So, the day that shiva is over is not, let us repeat, not the day to plan a big meeting. If you do go to work, go for half a day. When and where does it happen? Shiva usually starts right after the funeral. Someone at the funeral will typically announce shiva plans. Usually, it’s at the home of a close relative of the person who died. Of course, geography often plays an important part too. For example, if you live in San Francisco, but you grew up Long Island, and your mom in Long Island died, you might sit shiva in Long Island with your mom’s friends and Long Island family, but then you might have a day in San Francisco, with your own community, who also want to be with you during this time. There’s usually a built-in break too for the people sitting shiva (because who wouldn’t need a nap?). For example, sometimes people sit from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., then start again from 6:00 until 9:00 p.m. People do not sit shiva on Shabbat, so don’t plan to go between Friday night and Saturday night. Does sitting shiva really mean Sitting Shiva? Well, yes. The reason it is called sitting shiva is because the mourners who are sitting are exhausted and sad, and they don’t need to be walking around playing hostess and trying to make their visitors comfortable. So yes, they are often sitting. In fact, you might very well see the people who are mourning have little stools or seats without cushions. Low seating is a throwback to when sitting on the ground symbolized mourning. There are references in the Bible to being with others during mourning. In the book of Job, his three friends “sat down with him upon the ground… for they saw that his grief was very great.” We love that the tradition of being together and offering comfort hasn’t changed. Wait, so we just sit there? Not exactly. Depending on the observance of the folks who are sitting shiva, there is likely a minyan in the evening, typically for mourners to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). After the formal part of the minyan is over, the leader will most likely ask if anyone wants to say something about the person who died. This is a really lovely custom and often means a lot to the mourners. It’s a good time to share a story or memory. But there’s more to shiva than just the service and stories. Generally, during all of shiva, people hang out and nosh and tell stories and jokes about the deceased. To be really clear: the idea is not to avoid the subject of the person who died. Obviously take a hint from the person who is mourning, but the typical custom is to talk about the person who died and celebrate their life.
Grief. It's easier with company. And food.
Shloshim is the is the 30-day period following burial (including the seven shiva days, so there are only 23 official mourning days left). It’s less intense. The mourners go to work and carry on with their lives, but there are some things, like parties, that people in shloshim typically don’t do. Mourning for parents: When shloshim is over, the traditional mourning period is over, unless it is your mom or dad who died. The mourning period for parents is a full year. Some people wear the torn black ribbon during this time to show the world they are still in mourning. Often, people don’t go to parties or buy new clothes for an entire year. Many people, including secular people, say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) regularly during this time in honor of their parents and because the ritual can be comforting. Traditionally, Kaddish is said daily for 11 months after the death of a parent, and again on the yahrzeit, the anniversary of death, each year. It’s also traditionally said with a minyan. Do what you can – as often as feels comfortable, and alone if that’s what works best. (Seriously, it’s not like you’re going to forget your loved one if you don’t say Kaddish.)
Because sad times are when traditions serve us best.
The unveiling is when the tombstone is literally unveiled at the gravesite by family and close friends. It’s meant to mark the transition from mourning to remembering and typically takes place within the first year after death, often close to the one-year anniversary of the burial, before the first yahrzeit. Choose a date that works best for the people who really want to be there, and traditionally not on Shabbat. There’s no formal service and you don’t need a rabbi, so it’s a good time to get creative – share memories, say blessings, read poems, play music or sing songs, pass around photos, have a moment of silence, whatever feels right. Side note: Since there’s no rabbi, it’s a good idea to assign someone to lead the ceremony in advance to help things go smoothly. See below for an idea of what you may want to include. Sample ceremony:
That’s basically it. While many people leave flowers, Jewish tradition is for everyone to put a small stone on the grave before they leave. There are a few explanations for why we do this, but the most common one is that placing a stone on the grave serves as a sign to others that someone has visited the grave. It’s also said that the stones symbolize the lasting presence of the deceased’s life and memory. The idea is that the beauty of flowers isn’t permanent, just like a person’s body, but the spirit, like a rock, lasts forever. Sometimes there’s a lunch or small gathering after the unveiling.
While many people put flowers on gravesites, Jewish people usually use rocks which are more permanent, like the spirit of the deceased.
For a religion with so many specifics, there is very little information about Jewish afterlife. Good deeds are said to be rewarded in the world to come, but there’s very little written on what that world looks like. Some Jews believe that the soul goes to a paradise-like place. Some Jewish mystics believe in resurrection and even reincarnation. But there are no promises. The bottom line of Judaism: Do your best while you’re alive, and don’t worry so much about the rest.
It's not all that clear whether there's supposed to be a Jewish afterlife. You're supposed to do your best while you're alive anyway.
We get questions from lots of people — Jewish and not — about what to do and expect during a shiva. It’s not that complicated, and it’s a very nice thing to do. Don’t worry about doing the wrong thing — just show up. Here’s an overview that might help put you at ease: Do I need to be invited? Absolutely not! In fact, you won’t be. The people whose loved one has died have enough to think about without sending you an invite. All you need to do is find out where and what time those who are sitting shiva are seeing visitors and then show up. It’s a mitzvah, a good deed, to comfort someone in mourning, even if you don’t know the family very well. In the olden days, when Jews lived in communities of other Jews, they all just knew. Today, hopefully, friends and community members take over and post on Facebook or send out an email. But don’t just assume someone is handling it. If you know someone who has had a death in their family, ask if you can help notify people. What do I do when I get there? Don’t ring the bell. Just open the door and walk right in. This way, you won’t interrupt the mourners. Don’t feel weird about not ringing the doorbell, it’s the way it is supposed to be. Dressy or nah? Chances are the people sitting shiva will be dressed casually. They are probably exhausted. But, if you’re dressed up, that’s fine too. Often people are coming from work. This is one of those times where, honestly, no one cares. Again, just show up. What do I say? Here’s an easy answer: Talk about the person who died; it’s why you’re there. Here’s an example: “I’m so sorry about your mom. I never had the pleasure of meeting her; can you tell me about her?” Often the family in mourning has photos around the living room of the person who died. Pick one up and ask about it. Obviously, if the person in mourning would rather talk about “Game of Thrones,” go with it. (But no spoilers.) What should I bring? It’s fine to come with nothing, really. There will probably be food out, but this isn’t a feast. If you just hate the idea of going empty-handed, feel free to bring something to eat. (If the mourners are kosher bring something they can eat. If you’re not sure, ask someone who knows the family.) If you do bring food, make it a casserole or something the family can eat as a meal, rather than cookies or sweets. People generally don’t bring flowers, but if you do, don’t worry about it. Sometimes people give tzedakah in the name of the deceased. What will I see? Don’t be surprised if the mirrors in the house are covered with black cloth. People in mourning are not supposed to care about what they look like since they’re supposed to focus on mourning. How long do I stay? Your choice. Probably not more than an hour. You can pay a few shiva calls if it’s a relative or someone you’re especially close to. What if I went to the funeral? You be you, but just because you went to the funeral doesn’t mean you should not make a shiva call too. Lots of times, mourners are in a haze during the funeral, but are happy to talk more during shiva.
Seven days of shiva. A month's worth of deli platters.
Some of our favorite Shiva moments have been when a group of people sit around and tell stories about the deceased. Sometimes people can be shy or unsure how to behave at Shiva calls so get some folding chairs and assign someone to make this moment happen, or plan to do it yourself. It will mean so much more to the mourners than having everyone stand around and look sad, and it’s a great way for the people in the room to connect and share with each other. This blessing is a good way to start or finish the storytelling.
First line: Zikhrono livrakha – may (insert deceased’s name here) memory be a blessing to all who knew and loved them, and may we offer comfort and community to his/her wife/husband (insert name here) and their children, (insert names here)…
The Hebrew prayer recited in memory of the dead during the mourning period and to mark the anniversary of the death of a loved one. People can say Kaddish for people they don’t know, too. For instance, to remember those who died in the Holocaust. Interesting fact – death isn’t mentioned in the Kaddish, instead the prayer is largely focused on praising God.
Wow. For a relatively common emotion, grief is not written about in such a raw manner very often. Here, grief Coach, Jenetta Barry, offers powerful wisdom.
First line: Grief, a natural process, isn’t depression, isn’t allowing one’s emotions, outside of a session. Last line: Grief is a process that when lovingly seen through, allows feelings to surface of love and acceptance, and lots of grace too…
A beautiful short reading about being suspended in grief.
First line: It is kind of shocking when your world falls to pieces and everything and everyone around you carries on with life. Last line: As the weeks and months roll by, life becomes more real again, but you will never forget that point in time where life stood still…
When words fail us these readings can help.
Except no matter how many times we read this, the vivid imagery of the frozen solid honey cake is still breathtaking.
First line: When my mother died, one of her honey cakes remained in the freezer. Last line: Leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world…
This exquisitely beautiful reading about just a mundane birdhouse, reminds us that it is the small things we might remember about those we have loved and lost.
First line: Do you have a twenty-foot extension ladder? Last line: You might say that memory itself is a piece of real estate, a residence with a private entrance and a mystery inside like this small chateau painted blue with orange spots on it, hung twenty feet high – a thing, for a while, out of reach of the predator, time…
You know when you get so mad at your mom or dad for f*#king you up? Us too. This reading helps.
First line: Remembering our parents. Last line: Some of us may feel that our parents harmed us, intentionally or unintentionally, and that we are not yet able to forgive them; we hope that our mentioning them here today will help bring us a measure of healing…
Really a beautiful reading about grief and how we miss those who are no longer with us in the most routine parts of our days.
First line: Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. Last line: For my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: I am living, I remember you…
Tell stories, share memories, or say some words to your loved one. There's no right way to have an unveiling.
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