Every faith has customs and ceremonies that surround the milestones on the sacred journey of life. Perhaps, none more so than life's passing.
Within Judaism, the centuries have brought many rituals associated with death. They all have a purpose, and although the world has changed, these customs still resonate and bring comfort and solace to those in mourning. Our ancient traditions - based on wisdom of the ages - can be exceeding helpful during a time of grief.
Some Jewish funeral traditions include:
not leaving the deceased unattended from the moment of passing until the time of interment out of respect for the sanctity of the soul's earthly vessel.
burial as swiftly as possible in a simple pine coffin that is lowered into the ground, so that the "dust" from which our bodies were created, can return to the earth from which it came. Although strictly observant Jews will not consider cremation or above-ground burial, many Jews choose these options. I always respect and honor a family's wishes, and will officiate regardless of this very personal choice.
the immediate family of the deceased wears a small black ribbon pinned to their clothes as a visible symbol of their mourning. This is a modern version of an ancient custom in which mourners would tear their garments. The ribbons, which are usually pinned on by the officiating clergy or funeral director immediately prior to the memorial service, is traditionally worn for 30 days, with the exception of sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, since one is not supposed to mourn on the Sabbath.
a service which usually includes readings from both ancient and modern Jewish texts, as well as a eulogy and personal remembrances from friends and family. A memorial prayer beginning with the words "Eil Male Rachamim" asks God to graciously accept the spirit of the departed with love and compassion. If the deceased has a Hebrew name, it is inserted into this prayer:
the Mourner's Kaddish which is associated with memorializing the deceased, is recited. Usually, this occurs at the graveside. A couple of interesting facts: the Kaddish is written in Aramaic - not Hebrew. It also makes no mention of death. It consists of a string of praises to God. Judaism teaches that even at a time of grief and loss, we give thanks for the precious gift of the time shared with our loved one, and acknowledge that sacred miracle and mystery of life comes from the the Divine Presence.
having the family begin the sacred obligation of covering the grave. It is a final and selfless act of love and respect towards the deceased. One way to think of this mitzvah is that you are covering your loved one with a blanket of love and caring. Another custom is to sprinkle earth that has been taken from the Mount of Olives in Israel upon the casket as a way of symbolically connecting the deceased with the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Packets of this dirt are provided by Jewish funeral directors.
shivah (literally "seven") is the seven day period of mourning beginning immediately following the interment of the body. Generally, shivah takes place at the home of one of the mourners. Family, friends and neighbors are encouraged to visit the home and pay their condolences to the mourners. There may also be a brief service led by clergy or a member of the family (See my Shiva page for more details).
Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to have a rabbi officiate at a funeral. In fact, Jewish tradition does not require the inclusion of any clergy. However, if you desire the participation of an ordained Jewish clergy person, I can guide and assist you with all the arrangements, speak eloquently and movingly about your loved one, and through my voice, lessen your grief, lift your spirit, and bring healing and comfort to you in a moving, spiritual, and heartfelt way.
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