Questions & Answers About Jewish Funerals

This article, in question-and-answer format, addresses common questions about Jewish funeral customs.

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[A related comment by] Harold Schulweis: One of the most commonly asked questions is about the permissibility of a public viewing of the deceased. They claim to have seen it even at Jewish funerals. I explain that the Jewish tradition is sensitive to the status of the deceased. The deceased is a mirch v'ayns roch, someone who is seen but who cannot see. To open the casket and allow people to look at the deceased is to turn the comforters into spectators and the deceased into an "it." We remember those we loved when they were free and active human beings, not as objects to be observed. Rarely, after the explanation of the ritual tradition, have the mourners objected to the practice.

Isn't it true that sometimes mourners are asked to identify the body in the casket before burial?

Yes, especially if the body had not been positively identified before preparation for burial. In the past, most people died at home, surrounded by loved ones. Today, most people die in hospital rooms with family members scattered in many different places. Thus, in some communities, the request to "view" the deceased has become more common. This viewing of the deceased is strictly reserved for the immediate mourners, not the assembled friends and family. For some, this encounter is a comforting final good-bye and a chance to see the beloved at peace. For others, the idea of looking into a coffin is not comforting at all.

Is it possible to bury personal items with the body?

According to Jewish law, each person receives equal burial and there is no need for physical items to be buried with the deceased. Some people request that a small memento be placed in the casket.

What about earth from the Holy Land of Israel?

An age-old wish among Jews in the Diaspora during the past 2,000 years of dispersion was to be buried in the hallowed ground of Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel]. For those not able to be buried there, a bit of earth from the land of Israel can be placed in the coffin. Some families actually gather a sack-full of earth from Israel especially for this purpose. One of the most moving experiences I have had on my many trips to Israel was the time Susie and I collected such a sack of dirt at the same time we planted trees. We brought some of it to Omaha to place on the grave of Susie's mother, who had died the year before. You might also ask the funeral director if some dirt from the Holy Land is available.

I see people walking on graves to get to graveside services. Is that proper?

People should not step on graves as a matter of respect. In some cemeteries, walkways are provided for visitors to avoid inadvertently stepping on a grave. However, the need for maximum use of space in some cemeteries creates a situation when walking on a grave is unavoidable. Jewish law was sensitive to this and allows stepping on a grave if there is no other way to reach another gravesite.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.