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Jewish memorial service traditions and etiquette

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Many of us turn to our respective religions for guidance and support when saying goodbye to loved ones. After all, religious teachings often provide us with customs to follow when someone passes. For instance, in the Jewish faith, the Torah outlines instructions for bereavement, which includes information regarding everything from the memorial service to the burial process.

If you are preparing or attending a Jewish burial, there is Jewish memorial service etiquette to be mindful of to ensure you are respecting tradition. To help you better understand bereavement in Judaism, we have answered some frequently asked questions below. With that said, do understand some customs and traditions may vary by community or culture.

What is a Jewish memorial service?

A Jewish memorial service is a funeral for a Jewish person that follows specific religious practices. Typically, it takes place in a synagogue, funeral home, or graveside.

According to the Torah, a Jewish funeral should occur within 24 hours of the death as a sign of respect for the deceased. However, there are exceptions to this timeframe. For example, funerals are not held on most Jewish holidays or Sabbath. And in other cases, the service may be delayed so there is enough time for mourners to arrive or for an autopsy to occur.

Are there any Jewish bereavement customs?

Yes, there are several religious practices. For instance, the Jewish faith has traditionally prohibited cremation. Instead, bodies are placed in a wooden biodegradable casket, usually without embalming, to allow for natural decomposition. This burial process is called internment.

Shemira is another Jewish burial tradition. During this religious ritual, a designated person, usually a close friend or family member, will watch over the casket nonstop until the funeral service. Their role is to guard the casket and provide comfort to the deceased while reciting passages from the Book of Psalms.

Following the burial, the immediate family of the deceased will take part in shiva, a seven-day mourning period. This time allows for the family to begin their grieving process. Traditionally, the family will not leave the house or engage in routine activities, such as bathing, cooking, or working. Close friends and family will visit the home during this time, offering their comfort and condolences.

What happens during a Jewish memorial service and burial?

Certain Jewish sects may have different traditions, but typically, the memorial service is short and simple, usually lasting only 20 minutes or so. During a Jewish burial service, there is no wake or public viewing as the casket remains closed.

At the start of the service, mourners — or the rabbi — will tear or keriah a black ribbon or garment to express grief and symbolize the loss of life. As part of this ritual, mourners will place this black fabric on their clothing for the first seven days of mourning.

Next, everyone will gather for prayers and the eulogy, or hespeid. If the service is not already at the graveside, a funeral procession will lead everyone to the Jewish burial site. In some traditions, those carrying the casket will stop seven times before reaching the grave and lowering the casket.

At the graveside, mourners may recite an additional series of prayers, such as the Memorial Prayer, “El Maleh Rachamim,” and/or the Mourner’s Blessing, “Mourner’s Kaddish.” Afterward, everyone will have an opportunity to shovel dirt into the grave. This final act of honoring the deceased encourages closure for the friends and family.

What do you bring to a Jewish memorial service?

As a general rule, do not bring or send flowers or wreaths to a Jewish memorial service as this goes against tradition. Instead, consider bringing a fruit basket, kosher food, or refreshments for the mourners to help them prepare for shiva. Because mourners are not allowed to partake in daily activities while sitting shiva, they often rely on food prepared by friends and family.

Making a donation in your loved one’s name to their favorite charity or Jewish organization is another appropriate gift. Before donating, inquire if the family has designated a specific fund.

What do you wear to a Jewish memorial service?

While there is no specific Jewish memorial service dress code, dress modestly. Men typically will wear a tie and suit, sometimes with a kippah (a traditional skullcap) on their heads. Women often wear suits or conservative dresses or skirts. Unless otherwise noted, avoid wearing anything flashy and stick with more muted colors like black, gray, and brown.

If you are unsure about Jewish memorial service etiquette, especially since different sects may have varying guidelines, just ask. Knowing the answers may give you a better understanding of the religion’s customs and more insight into the person you are grieving. While saying goodbye and laying a loved one to rest is never easy, there is beauty in the act of honoring their religious rituals.

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