A Jewish Guide to Funerals and Mourning Customs
This guide to practical aspects of funeral arrangement and the rituals of mourning was compiled by Joyce Rose and Rabbi Adrian Schell
Judaism teaches that death has its allotted place in the cycle of life, and in the meantime, we should concentrate on our behaviour in this world rather than speculate about the world to come. We must choose how to deal with death and loss, for ourselves and for others, so that we can go forward, to life.
Contacting the Synagogue
If you need to contact us in the case of a bereavement, then please click here for all our contact details. If the office is closed, then please call the Jewish Joint Burial society immediately who will advise you of what to do. Their 24hr number is 0208 989 5252. Please also email the office at firstname.lastname@example.org so that the community can support you during this sad and stressful time. To contact the Rabbi please call 07485545108 or send a WhatsApp to the same number. This can even be done on a Shabbat.
Caring for the terminal ill and when death is imminent and certain
Human mortality is an inescapable reality. No one escapes it and few escape illnesses over the course of a lifetime. We can mourn for lost health and for the inevitable end of life, but we must not allow that sadness to cause an unhealthy sense of futility. Instead, we are counselled to heal what we can and endure what we cannot heal. When a disease is likely to be fatal, that does not limit the duty of the physician. All possible remedies must be tried and every measure to ease pain must be applied as well. It does not matter how the patient became ill. However, where death is imminent and certain, and the patient is suffering, Jewish law does permit one to cease artificially prolonging life. Thus, in certain circumstances, Jewish law permits ending artificial life support or refusing extraordinary means of prolonging life.
You might want to read with or to the person who is terminal ill something from our prayerbooks. These are words of our ancient old tradition, providing comfort and hope for the final journey. Death is seen as a natural and God given experience to be encountered and met, hopefully in the comforting presence of others. Wholeness of healing is understood not in physical terms, but as redeeming acceptance, reconciliation, and peace
At the time of death
If death follows an illness, it is probable that the Rabbi and other caring members of the congregation will already be in touch. Indeed, when death is felt to be approaching, some people find it helpful to ask the Rabbi to visit. The support that has been given will then follow into the period of mourning. Traditionally, and as a natural response, a person who is thought to be dying should not be left alone.
When death occurs, the body should be left with the hands lying alongside, not crossed over, and the lower jaw should be held in the normal position and not allowed to drop. Close the eyes of the deceased and straighten the limbs, if possible. Covering the deceased, often with a sheet is customary, as well as opening the windows in the room (if weather is problematic, windows are opened briefly, then closed again). At home a candle may be lit near the body. It has been the custom not to leave the body unattended.
You will, of course, have made sure that those who were close to the deceased receive the sad news quickly. Other people will share your sorrow and want to have the opportunity of attending the funeral and, on the principle that bad news travels fast, relatives, friends and members of your congregation will pass the message round. You may also decide to make an announcement in the Jewish, local or national press.
When arranging a funeral, it is usually the next-of-kin whose views are paramount, but the actual organising may be deputed.
Basic legal requirements
Whichever burial society you are dealing with, there are certain basic legal requirements which must be met, and the burial society will guide you through them.
You will be asked to obtain a certificate from the doctor who has recently seen the deceased person, stating the cause of death, and this will have to be taken to the Registrar for Deaths in the district in which the death occurred (not necessarily the same as where the deceased lived). You need to obtain from the Registrar a certificate giving you authority to arrange the funeral, as without this the funeral arrangements cannot proceed. Once the burial society is in possession of the Registrar’s certificate, they will make all the arrangements for the preparation of the body, the coffin, the cemetery, or the crematorium.
You will probably need extra copies of the Registrar’s certificate, perhaps for legal purposes, and it is just as well to get them at the same time. The Registrar will make a small charge for these.
There may be circumstances in which the doctor or hospital is unable to issue a certificate without referring the matter to a coroner. The coroner may then decide that a post-mortem or an inquest is necessary. You will be told what you have to do should this occur. Registrars will usually do their best to enable you to go ahead as soon as possible but legal requirements cannot normally be circumvented.
It is usual to hold a Jewish funeral as soon as possible after death. In some areas Registrars will make special arrangements to be available outside their normal office hours in order to assist the Jewish community. However, a funeral may be delayed for the reasons mentioned above, or to enable a close relative to attend from a distance, or if a death has occurred abroad. The burial society will be able to advise you throughout in making these arrangements, until the funeral can go ahead in the usual way.
Jewish Law, Customs and Practices
Who are mourners?
In Jewish law and tradition, one mourns for father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband or wife; Half-brothers, half-sisters and adopted children should be included. Whereas one may be deeply saddened by the loss of a relative or friend, in such cases one is not classified as a ‘mourner’ on whom Jewish tradition lays certain duties. Close friends or relatives not directly involved may be of great assistance. However, it is the next of kin who must make the decisions in keeping with their own feelings.
Over the centuries and in different countries various funeral customs have developed. In this country we now use a simple wooden coffin in which the prepared body is placed, wrapped in a white linen garment or a tallit (prayer shawl). Small personal items may be included on request. The coffin itself is normally covered with a plain cloth during the service. From time to time (for example, in the event of a relative who has travelled far to be at the funeral and may not have seen the deceased for some time) we receive a request that someone view the body before burial. According to Jewish tradition, it is not customary to display a body in a coffin. Exceptions can be made, though.
There are usually no flowers at Jewish funerals, but non-Jewish friends and colleagues may not be aware of this. A rebuff can be avoided by arranging for floral tributes to be discreetly laid after the service next to the grave or in an outside area, especially at a crematorium where facilities are provided.
The wearing of black clothing as a sign of mourning has little basis in Jewish tradition. It is a matter of personal choice, and most people prefer to wear quiet colours when attending a funeral.
It is important that the time for the funeral is arranged with the knowledge and agreement of the Rabbi or person designated to conduct the funeral. Be assured that every effort will be made to fit in with your required timing. It is expected that a funeral take place as soon as possible except in the case where a mourner must travel. No funeral or memorial service for a person who has been, oris to be, cremated can take place on a Shabbat or Festival (according to the orthodox observation of festivals to accommodate orthodox family members and members of staff) or in the case where a funeral is delayed pending the results of a post-mortem examination by a pathologist.
Mourners may be asked if they wish to perform the ritual of keriah (the tearing of garments as a sign of grief and mourning). If you wish to perform this ritual, the Rabbi will guide you. If you do not wish to perform the ritual, you do not need to. Where possible, the funeral service will include a short walk from the Ohel (chapel) to the grave side, enabling mourners to perform the Mitzvah of accompanying the dead. Reform Jewish practice permits women to act as escorts to the coffin if they wish to.
Services for either a Funeral or Cremation
It is helpful to the Rabbi to be introduced to the principal mourners prior to the funeral or memorial service and to be given the full Hebrew name of the deceased, if known. Alternatively, the Rabbi will use the English name or suggest a Hebrew equivalent if there is an obvious one.
The order of service for both a funeral and a memorial service are similar. The services are relatively brief and consist mainly of psalms and memorial prayers appropriate to the occasion.
A key part of the service is a hesped (eulogy, a tribute to the deceased) which is usually, but not necessarily, delivered by the Rabbi. It may be delivered by a family member or close friend. If the Rabbi or officiant did not know the deceased well, information may be asked for on which to base the hesped in order to speak well of the person who has died. In the event that family members find the service too emotional and feel unable to speak, they may ask the Rabbi to read the eulogy on their behalf.
After the hesped at the service, the congregation accompany the coffin to the graveside for the interment. It is traditional to recite psalms during this walk. The bearers will lower the coffin into the prepared grave, but it is then the duty of everyone present, beginning with the family mourners, to cover the coffin with earth. When this has been done (often symbolically) the service may be completed at the grave or on return to the ohel.
It is customary to conclude the service with the reciting of the kaddish, which is usually recited by the mourners, but may be led by someone else, including the service leader or Rabbi should the mourners feel unable to recite it. In case you are not familiar with this prayer, it is available in the funeral prayer book transliterated into English characters to help you read it. Reform Judaism does not exclude women from reciting kaddish.
At the conclusion of a funeral at the cemetery, the mourners will be invited to pass through two lines of persons attending the funeral whilst the traditional hope is pronounced that they “will be comforted with all the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.” There is then an opportunity for all those present to greet the mourners individually afterwards. The traditional greeting commonly used on such an occasion is “I wish you long life”, which is an encouragement to look in a forward direction, but there is a growing preference to use a more personal form of words.
The difference in the form of a cremation service from that of a burial service occurs at the time when the congregation would accompany the coffin to the grave. At this point the coffin can be removed from the chapel during the prayers while the service continues in the usual way. A musical accompaniment can be arranged.
Following a cremation, the ashes will be stored temporarily at the crematorium. As the person who has arranged the cremation, you will probably be asked how you would like them disposed of. They may be lodged in a columbarium, or you may want them dispersed in a place that was requested by the deceased.
The mourners will be guided and helped before, during and after the service, whether it be a funeral or memorial service.
Today, many Jews do not observe all the traditional mourning customs. No-one should feel pressured to do so. However, these customs have proved helpful to many people in coping with grief and loss and mourners should consider following them if it will assist them. It is the custom to mourn initially for seven days, hence the term ‘sitting shivah’ – shivah meaning ‘seven’. During the seven days, the mourners are not expected to leave their home. Today, fewer, and fewer people are observing the full seven days and the most common custom is for prayers to be recited in the home for one evening.
It is important that the mourners follow practices with which they feel most comfortable. One should not feel pressured by other people’s beliefs as to what is right and wrong.
During the period between the death and the funeral the bereaved person is in a state of aninut and is called an onen. The mourners who are formally acknowledged in a religious sense and have a role in the proceedings are parents, husbands and wives, children, and siblings of the deceased. The prescribed period of mourning for a parent last for one year. For husbands and wives, brothers, and sisters and for children it is thirty days, of which the first seven constitute the shivah period, but all say kaddish for eleven months. Half-brothers, half-sisters and adopted children should be included.
The traditional shivah lasts from the return home after the funeral until the seventh day. The day of the funeral itself counts as the first day, and as we consider from a Jewish point of view that a day starts at sunset on the previous evening, the first night of shivah is actually part of the second day. The seventh day is usually concluded after one hour in the morning. Thus, if a funeral takes place on a Monday, a full shivah would terminate on the following Sunday morning.
It is a period when no work or other regular activity is undertaken and friends call to offer comfort and take part in daily services which enable the avelim (mourners, in the singular avel) to say kaddish. The mourners will have returned from the funeral to a traditional meal of condolence, usually containing a hard-boiled egg as a symbol of the continuation of life. A yahrzeit candle will be lit, and they will sit all week on low chairs. Sometimes, two ordinary candles are lit in addition, to serve as a focal point during prayers, and texts of consolation are on view.
In practice the length of time that you sit shivah is a matter of personal choice, though you may also wish to fall in with the views of other members of the family. Some have one-night shivah only, some three days, whilst others keep the full period.
Mourning is not appropriate on Shabbat so shivah is not observed then. Mourners may feel ready to attend synagogue. At Wimbledon, mourners will be “welcomed” to the service after “Lecha Dodi”, a prayer sung at the beginning of the Friday night service. It is also usual not to have prayers on Saturday night after Shabbat though friends may like to call at that time.
In the event of a death occurring prior to a Jewish festival, providing one can sit shivah for one hour before the festival then the festival cancels the whole seven days. If a funeral takes place during a festival, then the shivah is delayed until after the festival. In this event one should consult the Rabbi regarding how many days one observes.
Sometimes a Memorial Service in the synagogue is felt to be desirable, especially if the deceased has been particularly well-known. Please reach out to the Rabbi to discuss the options you have.
The first thirty days after the funeral are called shloshim and include the shivah. The official period of mourning for a brother, sister, partner or young person covers this period whilst for those who have lost a parent it is a year, although kaddish is said for eleven months. Traditionally the death of a parent was seen as the greatest loss, because of the parent/pupil relationship, but nowadays this may not reflect the actual feelings involved.
After the initial mourning period, whatever its length, mourners will have to get on with their lives in some way. There may be business or legal affairs to be dealt with or consideration of a return to work. As the supportive framework of the shivah begins to slip away, this can be a crucial period of readjustment and may take time. Whilst festivities may not be in keeping with their feelings, religious ceremonies such as bar mitzvah or a wedding should not be postponed – a quieter celebration may be felt to be more suitable. Some also abstain from all parties, entertainments, and music during the whole mourning period but it is important not to withdraw from social contacts altogether.
A year after a person has died, Jewish tradition helps us to remember their significance in our lives by the Yahrzeit ritual. Their mourners light a 24-hour candle in their memory and their name is read out at Synagogue on the Shabbat after their Yahrzeit, both on Shabbat Evening and Shabbat Morning.
House of Mourning
Immediately on returning to the house of mourning one lights a Yahrzeit (memorial) candle and continues to do so for the full seven days.
The practice of visiting mourners, bringing food to a house of mourning and assisting mourners with routine tasks such as shopping or housework is to be commended and encouraged throughout the shivah period.
In the room where prayers are being held, there is a custom to cover any mirrors. Although the origin of this practice may be found in superstition, we advise that families follow it as there are well-founded psychological reasons for doing this. Photographs need not be removed. If possible, a small table should be positioned by the eastern wall. On this table the lit yahrzeit (memorial) candle should be placed.
It is advisable that the door to the house of mourning is both accessible and open. Fixed line telephones should be disconnected for the duration of the prayers and mobile phones turned off. The Rabbi, or reader, will provide the necessary prayer books and all present, women included, will be invited to join the service. Reform Jewish practice does not segregate the sexes. At the end of the service the mourners will be invited to recite kaddish. Following this, the mourners should take a (low) seat in a position convenient for those present to pay their respects.
We have Shiva Chairs and a “Shiva – Box” with cutlery and dishes at the Shul that can be borrowed for a shiva service. Please contact the office for further information.
Attendance at services
Most Progressive Jews do not attend Synagogue on a daily basis. The vast majority, however, will attend services on the Shabbat during the shivah period. At these services, the name of the deceased will be mentioned prior to the recital of the kaddish by the congregation.
It is a long-established Jewish practice to erect a memorial at some time following a burial. The time chosen for the placing of the tombstone varies. The typical period for doing this is within the first 11 months after the burial.
In order to commemorate a person who was cremated, a ‘Columbarium of Remembrance’ has been built at Randels Park. The ashes of the deceased are sealed into a niche in the columbarium.
Where a member of Wimbledon Synagogue has been bereaved, the Synagogue office will, if requested, notify the member(s) of the Hebrew calendar anniversary of the death (Yahrzeit). Many people follow the practice of attending Shabbat services during the week of the Yahrzeit.