The funeral is the moment when the immediate relatives of the person who has died go from being in a state of transition to being mourners. Before the funeral begins, Jewish law says that mourners should tear their clothing. This is the vestige of a Biblical custom of mourners tearing their clothing when they learned or realized that someone close to them had died. This orchestrated act of destruction shows recognition that sometimes people who are in deep grief want to tear and break objects. Since Jews now perform this ritual under the supervision of the rabbi officiating at the funeral, many people fulfill this mitzvah by wearing a torn ribbon to symbolize torn clothing. Only the parents, children, siblings and spouses of the person who has died tear their clothing or wear something torn.
Sometimes the Jewish funeral service is conducted entirely at the graveside, and sometimes partially at the home of the mourners, a synagogue or funeral home before the mourners and their family and friends accompany the body to the cemetery. Usually the service includes chanting or recitation of the Hebrew prayer for the dead El Malei Rachamim (“God Full of Mercy”). At most funerals, the officiant and the assembled community read psalms, ancient poems from the Hebrew Bible that are also sacred to Christians. The funeral may be the first place that the mourners recite the kaddish, a prayer in Aramaic that Jews recite in honor of people who have died, though it is not about death. Usually there is also at least one eulogy, delivered either by the presiding rabbi or by relatives or friends, or both.
Music, which is symbolic of joy in Jewish culture, is not traditional at Jewish funerals. The person who has died or the people who are mourning may want to hear an emotionally significant song or piece of music at the funeral service. It is important to make sure that all of the mourners and the rabbi officiating know about this in advance, to avoid friction at a difficult time.
Family and friends serve as pallbearers, because it’s part of honoring the dead person. Jewish funerals also often include the actual physical filling of the grave. Depending on the family custom and the local regulations, there may be shovels at the graveside that people use to fill in the grave. This is a way to honor the person who has died, and a respectful thing to do. In some Jewish funerals, the people at the graveside form two lines for the family members to walk between.
After the funeral, the close relatives go back to the house where they are going to be mourning. Either at the gates of the cemetery or at the door to the house of mourning, there should be an opportunity to ritually wash the hands. Some friends, family or community members go with the mourners to make sure that they eat when they get home. The custom is to put bread into the hands of the mourner. The first meal after a funeral traditionally includes round foods like eggs and lentils to symbolize the cyclical quality of life.
The Guide to Death and Mourning for Interfaith Families is available as a PDF and our booklet Mourning the Loss of a Loved One is available for download.