Funerals can be painful. But they can also bring us comfort and guidance. A Jewish funeral has one core purpose: to comfort the bereaved.
Jewish funeral customs follow a set order. Not all Jews observe all these customs. But most follow at least a few of them. They originate largely in the Bible.
1. Kriyah: Kriyah is a Hebrew word meaning “tear.” Prior to the start of the funeral service, the immediate family of the deceased don a black ribbon. We say a blessing, “Blessed are you, Eternal God, Judge of Truth,” and then tear the ribbon. It originated in the biblical practice of tearing one’s clothing upon receiving news of a loved one’s death.
Biblical examples of this practice include Jacob tearing his garments (Genesis 37:34) when his sons told him Joseph was dead. In II Samuel 1:11 King David and all his men tear their clothes after hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan.
In the Book of Job, Job tears his clothing upon hearing of the death of his children. (Job 1:20). Tearing our clothes symbolizes the internal tear we experience in our hearts.
2. Procession of the mourners: Usually the bereaved do not gather for a receiving line before the funeral service. The reason is that a Jewish funeral is meant to comfort the mourners rather than make them feel they need to socialize. Now sometimes it is fine for mourners to have a receiving line, but many do not.
3. Reading of Psalms: The book of Psalms provides guidance for mourners. The 23rd Psalm is almost always read at a Jewish funeral because it evokes God remaining with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Many people know its words by heart, and it provides a rhythm and feeling of comfort. Sometimes Psalm 121 is also read. It’s closing line in particular, “God will guard your coming and your going, now and forever,” reminds us that God is eternal even though our lives are limited.
4. Hesped: Hesped is the Hebrew word for eulogy. Delivering a eulogy at a Jewish funeral is a great honor and responsibility. According to most respected rabbis, a eulogy serves two purposes.
First, we are to praise the deceased. In other words, we find the most meaningful and inspiring parts of their lives and hold them for others. Second, we are to evoke emotion. We are to speak to the heart. We are to meant to evoke a catharsis, a real sense of feeling.
Quite often family members tell me they are going to try hard to “hold it together” during the funeral service. They do not want to draw attention to themselves.
But I always tell them we are supposed to feel. We are supposed to experience deep emotions. We all grieve in our own way, but a Jewish funeral service gives a time and place to acknowledge our real feelings. We do not have to be embarrassed to feel and express our pain.
5. Committal Prayer: After the eulogies, a prayer known as the El Malei Rachamim is chanted or read in Hebrew. The words mean “God, Full of Mercy.” It describes a Jewish vision of the afterlife where the soul of the deceased is protected under God’s wings.
Jewish funeral practices suggest we stand up during this part of the service. We remain standing for the final prayer, the Kaddish.
6. The Kaddish: The Kaddish is the primary Jewish prayer of mourning. Written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic (the primary language of the ancient near east 2000 years ago), the prayer describes God’s enduring power. It does not mention death because it seeks to help lift our spirits to a higher plane. We are to see the deceased as dwelling with God on high.
Part of the comforting power of the kaddish prayer is its rhythmic language. Even people who do not know the meaning of its words tell me they feel its power.
If the funeral service is held in the synagogue or a local chapel, the kaddish is usually not read there. It is typically read at the graveside.
7. Placing earth in the grave: This is one of the Jewish funeral practices that surprise many. At the end of the service, after the casket has been lowered, mourners typically use their hands or a shovel to place earth or sand into the grave.
Why fill the grave by hand when we can use a machine to do so more efficiently? Because we are showing our love and respect for the deceased by performing an act that can never be repaid. So many things we do in life because we get something out of them. When we shovel earth, we do so purely out of love.
In some cases, the grave is entirely filled with earth by mourners. In other cases, we place symbolic shovel-fulls of earth into the grave and then the rest is done by machine.
Our next post will discuss what happens after the funeral during the process called shiva.
Have you ever felt truly uncomfortable or truly healed at a funeral service?