Funerals, Memorial Services and FAQ’s

Funerals, Memorial Services and FAQ’s

“Thank you for your support and love…for me and my family. The tone you set at the unveiling (like the funeral and Shiva) was beautiful. You have a special gift of bringing the eternal mystery of spiritual comfort to those who most need it…at just the right time.” —Healing Center client

Bay Area Jewish Healing Center rabbis officiate at Jewish funerals and memorial services throughout our community which includes San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma and the Peninsula. To speak with us about spiritual support for the bereaved, conducting a funeral or memorial service, or if you just have questions please call us at 415.750.4197, or email jewishhealing@bajhc.org

Jewish Funeral FAQ’s

Judaism encompasses a broad range of practices and observance. The answers below reflect a more halachic (Jewish legal) orientation, and are intended to provide only some of the fundamental principles upon which diverse Jewish practice has expanded and refined. For additional clarification, please feel free to contact the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center or your local synagogue of choice

According to Jewish tradition, how long after death should the person be buried?

Burial on the day of death is traditional, or as soon as possible. A delay is permitted, however, to allow time for close family to arrive, or if governmental requirements first need to be met, such as an autopsy or investigation.

On which Jewish observances is burial NOT permitted?

Shabbat, Yom Kippur, the 1st and 7th days of pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot). Interment is permitted on the 2nd day of festivals, but is often discouraged.

What can I expect at a Jewish funeral?

Jewish funerals tend to be simple and brief. Traditionally, at the mortuary prior to the funeral service, the deceased is placed into a plain wood coffin which contains no metal, including nails and is completely degradable. The deceased is then transported to the site of the memorial. Sometimes there may be both a chapel and graveside service, or just a graveside service. Either is permitted. At the graveside, the sealed casket is taken from the hearse and is sometimes escorted from behind by the mourners and community to the gravesite. The casket may be carried by a few pre-selected mourners or it may be wheeled on a conveyance by the cemetery workers. The person who is officiating may walk in front of the coffin reciting selected verses and he or she may stop momentarily with each reading. The coffin is then placed on planks above the open grave. The interior of the plot, often according to legal requirements, may be lined by a cement vault. Several prayers and readings are recited, including the Mourners Kaddish, during the service. Eulogies may also be given here if there was no chapel service. The officiant, perhaps a rabbi or cantor, will, at the appropriate moment, indicate to the cemetery workers that it is time to lower the casket into the grave. This is done by hand using straps. A few more prayers and readings are offered, and earth is placed into the grave by family and, if invited, by all who are accompanying the mourners. At the conclusion of the service sometimes two lines are formed by the participants between whom the mourners pass as they leave the graveside. Announcements are sometimes made at the end of the service about any gatherings taking place after the funeral.

Does Jewish law permit cremation?

Views on the permissibility of cremation vary according to affiliation and can even differ within a denomination based on region or nation. Often the answer is “no.” The progressive movements in Judaism, however, will allow for it and support individual choice, but may still be discouraging of cremation as a practice. Other movements will not even allow their rabbis to officiate at a service for someone who was cremated. In the aftermath of the Holocaust there is also a somewhat pervasive communal bias against cremation. Sometimes cremation is a choice based on environmental considerations. An increasingly popular option is green burials, which accord well with traditional Jewish burial practices.

Does Jewish law permit autopsies?

An autopsy is sometimes permitted if there is a life-saving value to the procedure; for example, if the deceased was on an experimental medication and determining the cause of death would save others. It is also permitted if the law requires it. The autopsy, as much as possible, should be minimally invasive and bodily components should be kept with the deceased or returned for interment.

Does the Jewish tradition permit the viewing of remains?

This is not a Jewish custom. After the body is prepared for burial and the casket is closed, the body is not viewed unless a relative has yet to identify the deceased.

May a non-Jewish person be buried next to a Jewish relative (spouse, parent, etc.) in a consecrated Jewish cemetery?

It depends on the practices of the cemetery and community, but the traditional answer is “no.”

What does Judaism say about eulogies?

The guidance offered by the Jewish tradition is that eulogies are to give an accurate portrayal of the deceased, yet should focus on his or her meritorious qualities, and may be offered not necessarily at the funeral, but sometime during the 12 months after the person died. Eulogies are traditionally not delivered on Friday afternoons, afternoons prior to a major holiday, or on the minor celebrations of Purim, Hanukkah, and Rosh Chodesh (the first of the Hebrew month).

What does the Jewish tradition say about the afterlife?

The perspectives are many and varied and sometimes beliefs about the afterlife can be highly individual and very personal. The Torah itself speaks of “sheol.” It is a variously defined term which may refer to an underworld for the dead. The Sadducees (those of the priestly class during the 2nd Temple Period) generally may not have subscribed to the idea of an afterlife, but an expanded conception of the hereafter in Jewish thought seems to have started with their contemporaries the Pharasees. There is no heaven or hell in Judaism as it is conceived of in Christianity, but rather there are the ideas of Gehenna and Olam ha’ba as developed in the rabbinic tradition. Gehenna, or Gehinmom, is a realm in which souls are believed to be purified during a proscribed interval of 3 to12 months, except for a few who will reside there permanently due to the nature of their transgressions. Olam ha’ba refers to a world-to-come in which the righteous will dwell together in peace. Some Jewish sages spoke of there being either a bodily and spiritual resurrection in Olam ha’ba, or a strictly spiritual existence. This world-to-come is sometimes tied to the concept of the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish mystical tradition has references to reincarnation, and the philosophical tradition connects the immortality of the soul with the perfection of moral and intellectual qualities during life and is mostly disassociated with messianic concepts. Liberal Jewish denominations sometimes speak of the afterlife as manifesting through our lasting deeds and the values we bequeath to our descendents.

When do I say the Mourners Kaddish?

The Mourners Kaddish, a prayer in rabbinic Aramaic, is said for a parent, and is recited daily during the three public prayer services: morning, afternoon, and evening starting with the day of burial. Tradition holds that it is said with a minyan, or quorum of 10 individuals above the age of bnai mitzvah. It is usually said for 11 months or just one week short of 12 months. Some rule that the counting of this period begins from the day of burial, others from the day of death. If the beloved had requested it, or committed certain transgressions during his or her life, then it is permitted to say the prayer for a full 12 months. The Kaddish is also said on the yahrtzeit, or anniversary of the death. In reciting the Mourners Kaddish one’s intention is to sanctify God and to compensate through this sanctification for transgressions which may have been committed by the beloved.

What are the practices and customs of observing a yahrtzeit?

On the Shabbat preceding the yahrtzeit it is customary for the mourner to lead services and to be maftir (the person who reads the last aliyah and then the haftorah portion). On the day of the yahrtzeit it is customary to lead all the services for that day. A 24 hour candle is lit on the day of the yahrtzeit. If the yahrtzeit falls on Shabbat, then the candle should be lit on the afternoon before Shabbat begins. For children of parents who died it is traditional to visit the grave on the yahrtzeit and to also fast. One should not fast if the yahrtzeit is the day before Yom Kippur, and the fast need not continue into Shabbat.

What are the practices and customs for an unveiling?

The unveiling ceremony is a relatively recent practice in Judaism, perhaps having its origins in the late 19th century. As such, there are no Jewish laws per se concerning how to perform the ceremony, but there are customs. Usually it is done prior to the one year anniversary of death. It is during this period that the headstone should be set in place. The unveiling ceremony may include the reading of a psalm relevant to the deceased’s life, the recitation of El Ma’aleh Rachamim, perhaps a brief eulogy, and the Mourners Kaddish, after which the veil may be removed from the headstone. Many Jewish cemeteries provide the veil and will put it in place before the family arrives.

May pictures of the beloved be displayed at a memorial service?

During the shivah period (the 7 days of mourning which starts with the funeral) some cover photographs of people which are displayed in the mourner’s home. Many, however, do bring photographs to a memorial and this practice is often tolerated if not even sometimes expected.

Why is it customary to leave a stone and not flowers at a Jewish gravesite?

There are several theories as to why stones are customary. It is thought it may be the remnant of the ancient Near Eastern practice of sealing a tomb with a stone or marking a burial spot with a grouping of rocks. Flowers are also potentially associated with ostentation, and Jewish funerals are simple affairs where all, regardless of social status, are seen as equals in death. Sometimes Jewish custom is defined by distinguishing itself from practices that are considered belonging to other religions. Leaving flowers may have been seen more as a non-Jewish way of honoring the dead, and therefore outside the realm of normative Jewish burial customs.

When is Yizkor recited?

After the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, the final day of Passover, the 2nd day of Shavuot, and on the day of Shemini Atzeret. It is said for parents, relatives, and even friends.