Introduction] When & Where] The Funeral Procession] The Funeral Home] The Rending Ritual] Eulogies] Kaddish] Mourner's Kaddish] Walking to the Grave] Burial] Kaddish HaGadol] El Malei Rachamim] Request for Forgiveness] Leaving the Grave] Leaving the Cemetery]
Many burial practices have developed over the years, some of them widespread and some practiced only by a small minority. Certain practices are motivated by a desire to show respect for the dead, while others stem from concern for the mourners and an attempt to help them come to terms with their loss. Some of the customs deal with the soul-searching that death seems to induce and others with the natural human fear of death. Certain customs developed that are mystical and folkloric, kabbalistic in origin, and based on accepted beliefs regarding death.
Most of the burial practices are religious obligations that have a strong basis in Jewish tradition. Some Jewish communities practice customs whose status is more disputed. Someone who has difficulty relating to these customs, and prefers not to observe them may do so and still perform a burial which is 'according to the law of Moses and Israel.' As a general rule, the chevra kadisha takes responsibility for the deceased, and observes all the accepted Jewish practices concerning it. Whatever relates, however, to the mourning family, is left to its discretion, and the family may request that certain customs not be performed.
What follows is a general description of the burial ceremony. The precise customs may vary from locale to locale and from one chevra kadisha to another – a psalm, piyut, or verse might be added or the order of the ceremony slightly altered. Certain local or communal customs may also be observed.
When and Where
Burials are performed in cemeteries throughout the country. Cemeteries are open throughout the day and during part of the night, but only on weekdays (not on Shabbat nor on certain holidays). The funeral time must be coordinated with the chevra kadisha. In certain places the chevra kadisha will dictate the time based on its schedule. Elsewhere, and wherever possible, the deceased's family will determine the time that is most convenient. It is customary to perform the burial as soon as possible, ideally on the same day.
The Funeral Procession
Generally, the chevra kadisha, responsible for the burial, transports the deceased from the hospital in a hearse to the funeral procession. Occasionally, the chevra kadisha will transport the deceased from his home, and only on rare occasions is the deceased (in a temporary coffin) first brought to a central location, where the public can 'pass before him' and offer their last respects.
Some people, especially of Sephardic and Near Eastern origin, have the custom of beginning the funeral procession from the deceased's home. Those accompanying the deceased gather there and follow the body on foot for a short while, and then drive the rest of the way to the funeral home and cemetery. Any deviations from the standard funeral procedure cost the chevra kadisha both in time and money, an expense the family must cover. In many communities, it is customary to break an earthenware vessel just outside the threshold of the house, as a symbol of the vulnerability of life and of man.
The Funeral Home
The 'funeral home' or 'tent of prayer' is where people assemble to eulogize the deceased and to begin the funeral procession. The body is taken out of the hearse and several pallbearers carry the bier to the funeral home. The pallbearers will sometimes rotate every few minutes in order to allow as many people as possible this opportunity to accord last respects to the deceased.
The Rending Ritual – K’riah
Family and close friends gather in the funeral home close to the podium from which the eulogies will be delivered. Kohanim, who are forbidden from standing under the same roof as the deceased unless he is immediate family, generally have an outdoor shelter that overlooks the central funeral hall. Before the eulogies begin, the body is brought into an inner room in the funeral home, and immediate family (parents, spouse, children, and siblings) approach, one by one, to perform the ritual of k'riah (rending their garments). K'riah, of course, is only performed with your assent. K’riah is likely to be very difficult for the mourners since it is done in the presence of the deceased's body. If you request, the chevra kadisha will uncover the deceased's face for a moment. Usually, a family member will be asked to identify the body being brought to burial.
The rending ritual is a Jewish custom in which the mourners tear their clothing as a symbol of the tear in their souls caused by anguish over their relative's passing. The Biblical precedent for this custom is Jacob's rending of his clothes in mourning over Joseph, his son, whom he presumed dead (Genesis 37:34). The Bible connects mourning and grieving with rending of clothing in multiple narratives. In the Talmudic period, mourners customarily tore their own clothing the moment they saw or heard about their relative's passing. Nowadays, mourners generally do k'riah in the funeral home, while the deceased lies before them. The tear is made in the outer garment (shirt) above the chest, on the left side (location of the heart) for parents, and on the right side for other relatives. The tear must be significant, approximately 8.5 centimeters (3.5 inches), and made with a knife, not scissors. Usually, a member of the chevra kadisha starts the tear, and then the mourner extends it by pulling the torn flap downward. The mourner stands (if possible) during the k'riah, and afterwards recites a blessing declaring that God is the true judge:
Mourners customarily do not change their torn garments for the duration of shiva. If one's tear is too large, one may close it up with a safety pin so that it will serve as a symbol of mourning. After shiva, some people have the custom to discard their torn garment.