How to Plan a Jewish Funeral
A Practical Guide to Preparations for Jewish Burial and Mourning
While no one is ever fully emotionally prepared to say a final good-bye to a loved one, one can learn what to do when planning a Jewish funeral. Learning these details (particularly, before they are necessary) can make this painful time less confusing. The traditional timeframe for a Jewish burial is quite brief. In North America, burial usually occurs within three days of the death. Due to this whirlwind of activity, it is helpful for mourners know what to expect from centuries-old Jewish burial and mourning practices.
Contacting the Hevra Kadisha
When a Jewish person passes away, the first task is to inform the Hevra Kadisha ("Holy Committee" or burial society, who will quickly send representatives to gather the body. A hospital, care facility, synagogue, or rabbi should be able to help you contact this organization. A representative of the Hevra Kadisha may ask if there is someone available to stay with the body until they arrive. A dead person should not be left alone until their burial. A shomer, or guard, will watch over the body, often while reciting psalms. Although a family member may be willing to serve this role, it is not necessary that the shomer (or shomeret, if a woman) know the deceased person (though it is often considered best if they are Jewish).
Most often, the Hevra Kadisha will arrange for transporting the body of a dead person. Depending on the local situation, the Hevra Kadisha will either conduct its work at its own facility or at a funeral home. Trained volunteers will bathe and dress the body with extreme care and respect. According to Jewish law, no natural or chemical agents will be used to preserve the body. A traditional burial will also include dressing the body in a plain white shroud and an untreated wooden coffin. Other than the shroud, the only item that may be buried along with the dead person is a talit (prayer shawl) with one of its corner fringes cut. These rules enable a natural returning of the body to the earth and emphasize the irrelevance of wealth and stature in death.
Larger Jewish communities may have separate burial societies for each synagogue or Jewish denomination (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox). In such a situation, each Hevra Kadisha will have a slightly different approach to the laws and customs connected to body preparation and burial. For example, one Hevra Kadisha may allow the body to be dressed in clothing rather than a simple shroud. For families to whom this is important, one may consider working with that Hevra. Choose the organization that best matches your family’s preferences.
There may not be a burial society in your home town. A burial society is one of the primary institutions of Jewish community. However, not all Jews live in established Jewish communities. In some areas, there may be a set protocol by which Jewish funerals are arranged, even if there is no official burial society. Jewish burials in such areas may be arranged by local Jewish families, sometimes through a synagogue. In other places, it may be best to call the closest synagogue or Jewish Federation—whether it is in the nearest major city or a neighboring state.