Orthodox (traditional) and Reform (modern) Jewish funeral practices vary. The funeral is usually organised with the help of the Rabbi (religious leader).
Preparing the Body
In some areas there will be a sacred burial society (“Chevra Kaddisha”), which will prepare the body. Men prepare men and women prepare women. The body will be cleaned (taking care never to place it face down) and wrapped in a white shroud (tachrichim). It will then be laid in a simple, pine coffin made entirely from wood with no decorations or embellishments. Men may be buried with their prayer shawls (‘tallit’) with one of the fringes cut, and with their religious skullcap (‘Kippah’ or ‘yarmulke’).
From the moment of death, the body is not left alone. A guardian (Shomer), usually a relative, friend or member of their congregation, will sit with the deceased and recite psalms.
The Funeral Service
According to Jewish law, the funeral takes place as soon as possible after death, ideally within 24 hours. In cases where this is not possible (for example if mourners are coming from abroad or if there is no time before Shabbat or a holy day) there may be a short delay.
Orthodox Jews must be buried. Embalming and viewing of the body are forbidden, but some Reform rabbis will officiate at funerals involving cremation.
The funeral is planned with the help of the Rabbi and, if there is one, the “Hevra Kadisha” (a holy society which supervises funerals). Most ceremonies take place in a synagogue or at the graveside.
Jewish funerals are quiet, simple, solemn occasions (with no music or flowers). Psalms and the memorial prayer (“Kel Malei Rahamim”) are recited and a eulogy delivered. At the beginning of an Orthodox funeral, close relatives of the deceased tear their clothes (or the Rabbi may do this for them) as a symbol of their loss. At a Reform funeral it is more usual for a Rabbi to tear a black ribbon for each close family member to wear.
The casket is then carried or wheeled out, followed by the principal mourners, whilst the rest of the attendees remain standing until they have left the room.
At the cemetery, it is customary for pallbearers to stop seven times to recite Psalm 91. The burial takes place and the “Mourner’s Kaddish” is recited. Earth is scattered on the coffin by each family member and close friends, either by hand of with the back of a shovel.
After the Funeral
After the internment, there may be a reception at the synagogue or family home. Friends prepare a meal, traditionally including eggs. Then a mourning period (“Shiva”, meaning seven) is observed at the home of the deceased’s family. Traditionally this is for seven days, however some Reform and other Jews now sit Shiva for just three days (or sometimes just one). During this time, all day-to-day activities, such as work and cooking, are stopped so the bereaved can focus on mourning and praying. It is customary for friends to visit and bring food. A candle is lit and mirrors are covered. Bathing is not allowed, nor shaving for men. Family sit on low chairs or benches.
After this, a second period of mourning (“shloshim”, meaning thirty) is observed which lasts until the thirtieth day after the funeral. During this time, mourners resume their daily routines but will continue to recite the Kaddish daily and to avoid social gatherings and celebratory events. For most, this marks the end of the formal mourning period. However, in the case of the death of a parent, the mourning period (“Shneim Asar Chodesh”) lasts a year. During this time, large gatherings and celebrations should be avoided.
What to Wear
For an Orthodox funeral service, everyone wears a head covering; men wear yarmulkes and women wear scarves. For a Reform funeral service, a head covering is optional. For both, dark coloured, conservative clothing is appropriate.
Charitable Donations and Flowers
Flowers are traditionally not present at the funeral service. Instead, donations can be make to a chosen charity.
Organ donation and donating the body to medical research is acceptable.
Embalming and cremation are not acceptable to Orthodox Jews, unless required by law.