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The following is a summary of Jewish funeral customs:
Funerals should take place as soon as possible, often done on the day of death or the following day.
Autopsies are not routinely done unless required by law.
Cremation is not allowed. This is because traditional Jews are prohibited to desecrate a body by artificial means. According to Rabbi Maurice Lamm "Even if the deceased willed cremation, his wishes must be ignored to observe the will of our 'Father in Heaven."
Burial is a plain wooden casket with no metal, that includes no metal handles or even nails. They are put together with wooden pegs. Actually, Jewish tradition is to bury the person without a coffin; if a coffin is mandatory by local law, tradition dictates choosing a simple one. As Rabbi JB Soloveitchik put it, the deceased can't appreciate the fine furniture. Better you spend that money getting your synagogue a new pew!
The body is clothed in a white linen shroud and not street clothes. Shrouds are sewn without knots, and are a multiple piece garment. In earlier times, the sisterhoods or women's auxiliaries used to make shrouds for their community; this practice may still occur in traditional communities. Today, virtually all (Jewish) mortuaries carry shrouds, the prices vary.
This is done because of a rabbinic decree of around 1800 years ago. People were spending more than they could afford on funeral expenses because no one wanted to show the deceased, typically a parent, less honor than others showed their loved ones. So, Rabban Gamliel, the "prince" of the Jewish community of the time (and therefore his estate would be quite wealthy), demanded that he be buried in simple white linen, and that this become the custom for everyone. He patterned this clothing after that worn by the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur. If G-d asks the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies and confront the Divine Presence in simple white linen garments, it seems fitting to do the same when preparing someone to meet their Maker. To this very day, we bury people in a hat, shirt (kittel), pants, belt -- all of plain white linen, if a man, his tallis, and simplified (and ritualized) shoes. No pockets, since you can't take it with you. And the belt isn't knotted, for Kabbalistic reasons.
Objects are not put into the casket as we come into this world with nothing and so we leave with nothing. All of us are equal in the world to come. Men are attired in a Tallis (prayer shawl).
Note: This include pet remains (yes, we've gotten the question of people wanting to bury their pet remains with them). If you must have your pet that close to you, consider putting the ashes besides your casket (if this is acceptable to all parties).
A Shomer, guard, remains with the body from time of death through to the burial.
After the ritual funeral, the casket is put into the ground and the mourners and those attending the funeral fill the grave.
A holy society (the Chevra Kaddisha) takes charge of a body at death. They clean and bathe the body, perform a ritual of pouring water over the corpse (called Tahorah), dress the body in the shroud (Tachrich) and put the body into the casket.
Once the funeral is over, all attending ritually wash their hands as they leave the cemetery.
Condolences are made at the home of the mourners.
At the funeral, an article of clothing is torn by the direct morners. This is called kriah. It is usually a lapel of a dress or shirt, a tie or sometimes a black ribbon that is placed over the heart.
Flowers are normally not sent, for the following reasons:
Simplicity. The tradition in Judaism is to keep funerals as simple as possible, to make everyone equal in death.
Tradition. Although flowers are not prohibited, the custom arose over time of not sending flowers, and making contributions instead. In ancient days, the Talmud informs us, fragrant flowers and spices were used at the funeral to offset the odor of the decaying body. Today, this is no longer essential and thus, many Jews do not use them at Jewish funerals at all. Most feel it is much better to honor the deceased by making a contribution to a synagogue or hospital, or to a medical research association for the disease which afflicted the deceased. This method of tribute is more lasting and meaningful.
There is a reason for the plain wooden casket and linen shroud. First, it demonstrates that everyone is equal in deaththe rich and the poor. Secondly, it frees the bereived family from any sense of duty to spend more than they can afford.
A note with respect to cremation: For non-traditional Jews, the answer with respect to cremation is more difficult. While frowned upon by Jewish law, liberal Jews have wide opinions concerning cremation. On the negative side, cremation flaunts the death of our co-religionists in the Holocaust. They were burned (cremated) to ashes against their desired will. It is difficult to understand why a post-Holocaust Jew would wish his/her body to be so destroyed after death, as if giving the Nazis another small victory in obliterating the remnant of our people. On the other hand, the great Rabban Gamliel (Moed Kattan 27a) wrote the ruling that Jews subscribe to today. There should be respect of the dead and not undo financial burden placed upon his/her family. While he was a prominent and wealthy man, the leader of the Jewish community two millennia ago, he chose to be buried in a plain casket (substitute cheap) and dressed in simple linen/shroud (substituted cheap garment as opposed to burying in an expensive suite.) His rationale is solid in as much as funeral costs today are very high. Cremation is a way to substantially reduce the financial burden on the family. This is in keeping with Rabban Gamliel's position. But even if there is cremation, the cremains should be buried. First, it conforms to the Jewish view of returning the ashes/dust to the primordial earth and second, it gives the family a site to direct their mourning. Many Jews find great comfort coming to the graves of parents and relatives at special times of the year to pay homage and respect. Scattering of ashes or leaving grandma in the hall closet does not have the same sanctifying power.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>