Jewish Funeral Etiquette (Tips for Non-Jewish Included)

Jewish Funeral Etiquette
Jewish funerals occur within 24 hours without embalming or cremation. Dress modestly, arrive on time, and don't take photos or bring flowers. During Shiva, bring kosher food and offer condolences. Participate in prayers and research Jewish funeral customs to understand and respect the traditions.

1. Jewish Funeral Customs 101

Jews do the burial services within 24 hours of the death. They believe the soul doesn’t rest until the body is buried. There is no wake. Jews don’t do cremation or embalming of the body. Instead, the Chevra Kadisha, a sacred society dedicated to burials, performs the Tahara to clean the body.

Jewish law says Jews shouldn’t be buried differently, whether rich or poor. So everyone is buried in plain wooden caskets and they don’t place flowers on graves. The shiva, or mourning period, starts with the funeral and lasts seven days. But on the date the person died, the Yahrzeit, the family lights a candle.

2. What To Dress

Wear a black suit and tie with a yarmulke for a more traditional look if you’re a man. But now it is also considered appropriate to wear a sports coat or a blazer with slacks. Wearing a collared golf shirt without a tie is also ok. Depending on the congregation, a yarmulke won’t be required. But there are usually some available at the entrance if needed.

If you’re a woman, wear a modest dark-colored dress, a blouse with a skirt, or a suit. Women aren’t usually required to wear head coverings like scarves, but the family will probably give you one if needed. Jews wear modest clothing at funerals, so as long as the clothes are plain, you can wear lighter colors.

It’s a Jewish funeral tradition called Keriah to tear off a piece of clothing before the funeral. The family members of the deceased do that to show how sad they are. Today, mourners wear a torn black ribbon on their chests.

3. Punctuality

Arrive on time or some minutes before the Jewish funeral service. They usually start on time. It’s disrespectful to the mourning family to arrive late at a funeral. But if you do, enter quietly and sit at the back so you don’t disturb anyone.

4. What Is Shiva?

Family members of the deceased sit shiva for seven days after the funeral. It means seven in Hebrew. But sometimes families do this Jewish mourning ritual for less or more time. I said they sit shiva because they sit on the floor or low tools in their family home.

The mourners can’t engage in pleasurable activities, go to school, or work during this timeframe, so families with financial difficulties can work after three days. The Shiva also stops for some Jewish holidays and the Shabbat.

5. Offering Condolences

The family should only concentrate on their mourning during the Shiva period. Respect them by not talking to them during the funeral. You can let them know you were there by signing your name on the guest book.

After the graveside service, you can follow the Nihum Avelim Mitzvah (the commandment of comforting mourners). This consists of the funeral attendees reciting words of condolence in Hebrew or consoling the direct family of the deceased. But don’t talk to them unless they talk to you.

Close friends also visit the Shiva house, bringing kosher food for the mourners. If you make a shiva call, be brief and don’t give unsolicited advice. You can also show your concern by participating in prayers.

6. Participating in Services

Don’t worry about being in the wrong room if you don’t see the deceased’s direct family before the service begins. They will be in a separate room doing the Keriah. They will only enter the funeral home before the opening prayers.

After that, the officiant will start the eulogy, which is called the Hespeid. You can participate in the service by saying “Amen” when you see other people doing it.

The hearse will then take the casket to the cemetery. The pallbearers will take the casket to the gravesite. This funeral procession stops seven times to show how it is hard to let go of a loved one.

They pray before or after the lowering of the casket. Then, only the mourners start the mourner’s kaddish, a prayer. The Jewish burial ends with the grave being covered in earth.

7. What To Do if You’re Confused

If you don’t know what to do at a Jewish funeral, follow the lead of the rabbi or the funeral director. Follow their instructions and also look at what other people are doing. You can discreetly ask for their help if you are confused.

8. No Photos

It’s disrespectful to take pictures or record the service because it is a breach of privacy and a distraction. The immediate family may feel violated since this is a very vulnerable and intimate moment for them. Jews even cover mirrors when sitting shiva to avoid distractions like vanity. So taking photos can be seen as vain.

Using the phone, in general, isn’t a good idea since it is an extra distraction. And the mourners may feel disrespected because you aren’t paying attention to the ceremony.

9. Be Respectful

Keep quiet during the funeral service. A funeral is a solemn ritual. People do it to acknowledge the deceased’s passing and celebrate what they lived before. So being quiet and letting the ceremony happen without interruptions is respectful.

10. Flowers Also Die

Don’t give flowers to a Jewish mourning family or place them in a Jewish grave. This is even seen as an interruption to their period of mourning. Planting flowers on a grave is a non-Jewish tradition, so the Torah (Jewish Bible) doesn’t allow it.

Also, some flowers are more expensive than others, so rich families would afford more and “better” flowers. And Jews believe everyone, rich or poor, should be buried equally.

Flowers are temporary. Why not give a more lasting gift, like donating to a charity in the deceased’s name? This is a practice Jews and Muslims have to honor the deceased’s life and help the community.

When Jewish people visit graves, they leave another lasting gift, stones. They show that someone who cared about the deceased was there. This Jewish tradition is also thought to keep the deceased’s should in this world.

11. Jewish Funeral Etiquette for Non-Jews

men wearing kippah
Men wearing kippah

Refrain from any displays of non-Jewish religious symbols to show respect for the Jewish faith. You can participate in the chants and prayers, but you don’t have to. Your clothing and behavior should also reflect your respect. Be ready to wear a kippah or a veil.

12. Acknowledging Cultural Differences

Non-Jews should remember that a Jewish funeral has different traditions from what they are used to. Researching Jewish cultures is a great way to understand the rituals better. You will be honoring the deceased by following their traditions. So be open to understanding the traditions and customs of Judaism.

Ana C.

Ana C. is an artistic writer who loves shaping language around her message. For her, etiquette is about respecting everyone and spreading kindness. She loves hanging out with goats, analyzing TV shows, and eating feijoada with farofa.

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