Jewish Traditions Regarding Death
For many centuries, Jews have been guided by traditions regarding death—including rituals for caring for the body, the funeral service, and burial—that are based on the value of k’vod hamet (honoring the deceased).
Traditions of Chevra Kadisha
Sinai Memorial Chapel was founded as a chevra kadisha, a “holy burial society” that performs several traditional rituals associated with preparing the body for burial:
Shmirah (watching): From death until burial, it is traditional for guards (shomrim) to watch over the body, so that the person who died is never alone between death and burial. This tradition is called shmirah. The shomrim (who are assigned by Sinai Memorial Chapel) often read psalms and study Jewish texts in memory of the deceased during this time.
Taharah (washing): This is the ritual preparation and purification of the body to prepare it for burial. Psalms and prayers are recited as the body is bathed in warm water and purified for its return to the eternal.
Women may wash men, but men may not wash women. Taharah is performed either by members of Sinai’s chevra kadisha or by a congregationally based chevra kadisha.
The tradition of taharah is based on the belief that, just as a newborn child is immediately washed and enters this world clean and pure, a person who departs this world should be cleansed and made pure.
Tachrichim (shroud): These are the shrouds in which Jews have been buried for centuries. They are simple white garments, usually made from 100% pure linen and are meant to ensure equality between rich and poor; all are buried in the same garments. In addition, tradition says that since these shrouds have no pockets, wealth or status cannot be expressed or acknowledged in death.
In addition to the rituals performed by the members of the chevra kadisha, other aspects of a Jewish funeral are guided by tradition, including:
Aron (the casket): Caskets for deceased Jews are traditionally made of wood. This allows the body to be placed into the earth in its most natural state, fulfilling the concept of Genesis 3:19, which says, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Metal hardware and nails are avoided.
Sinai Memorial Chapel has a large selection of traditional caskets, made from a wide variety of wood, from which to choose.
Traditionally, Jewish practice does not include:
- Open caskets, with viewing of the person who died
- The wearing of personal clothing by the person who died
However, Sinai respects the wishes of families to make their own decisions about how to honor their loved ones. We are committed to helping you plan the funeral or memorial service as you’d like.
The Funeral (L'vayah)
Jewish tradition incorporates many different ways for loved ones to be remembered. A Sinai funeral can take place at our funeral chapels, a cemetery of your choice, or graveside.
There are several elements that are usually included in a traditional Jewish funeral:
Kriah (rending of the garments): Before the funeral begins, many follow a Jewish tradition called kriah, which consists of the rabbi (or other officiant) making a tear in the clothing of the family of the deceased. This is meant as an outward symbol of grief. Traditional families may cut their actual clothing, but it is common to tear a black ribbon (which will be provided by Sinai Memorial Chapel).
Readings: These often include Psalms (15, 23, 24, 29, and 90), as well as readings from Jewish poetry.
Closing prayer: At the end of the service, the memorial prayer El Malei Rachamim (“God is filled with mercy”) is often chanted. This prayer asks a merciful God to care for the soul under sheltering wings of peace.
At the Cemetery
The Seven Stops: It is traditional at Jewish burials for the pallbearers to pause seven times as they carry the casket to the gravesite. This symbolizes the hesitation and unwillingness to remove the presence of the deceased. Some traditions include the recitation of Psalm 91 during the procession.
Burial (kevurah): Once the pallbearers have carried the casket to the gravesite, the rabbi or whoever is leading the service will lead final prayers, and the casket is lowered into the grave. A Jewish tradition is for each mourner to place three shovelfuls of dirt into the grave. The shovel is held so that the back of the shovel faces upward, to show that it is being used for a purpose that’s the opposite of life and that it also takes time, showing our reluctance to bury a loved one. This tradition of having family and friends fill the grave also ensures that the deceased is not buried by strangers. The shovel is placed into the pile of dirt before the next person uses it, rather than being handed from one person to another.
Finally, the officiant will lead family members in reciting the mourner’s Kaddish—a prayer celebrating life.
As the family leaves the gravesite, it is customary for others to form a double line facing each other, called a shura. This symbolizes the transition from honoring the dead to beginning the process of mourning. As the mourners walk through this pathway, those present recite these words of comfort: “May G-d comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
There has long been a connection between Jewish mourning customs and tzedakah, the religious obligation to do what is right and just (often equated with being charitable).
Tzedakah is seen as a way to make the memory of someone tangible in order to keep the beliefs and interests of the deceased alive and active.
People often make contributions to a synagogue, community organization, hospital, or medical research institution. We have provided a list of major Jewish organizations for this purpose.
Sometimes, a family will suggest a favorite charity of the person who died that friends may donate to in his or her memory.
To learn more about Jewish traditions related to the death of a loved one, you can view the videos
on this page.