Jewish Rituals for the Deceased
Jewish traditions of burial and mourning honor the met/meta (deceased) and comfort the living. We honor the human dignity of the met/meta by treating the body with respect and care, and comfort the living by providing the services needed to honor your loved one.
Traditionally, from the moment of death to the moment of burial, the met/meta is never left alone. It is customary that family members and close friends serve as shomer (watcher) for the one who has died. If you would like to perform this loving act, or would like members of either burial society to serve as shomrim during business hours, please let one of our directors know so that we can coordinate that with the members of the Chevra Kavod HaMet or The Portland Hevra Kadisha. An overnight shomer can also be provided, for an additional charge. If you would like that service, please inform one of our directors, and we will make the necessary arrangements.
“The body leaves the world the way it entered”
Jewish tradition teaches us to treat the body, which has been the home of the soul, with respect. Just as a baby is washed and dressed when it enters the world, so too do we wash and dress the met/meta before burial. This act of washing, ritual purification and dressing is known as tahara, and is performed by the trained men and women of the Chevra Kavod HaMet and The Portland Hevra Kadisha. These specially trained men and women are volunteers and operate without fee for their services, but costs for the tachrichim (shroud) and supplies will be billed to the family.
Tachrichim is the traditional garment that is used to dress the met/meta after the tahara has been performed. These white garments, consisting of a bonnet (for women) or a hood (for men), undershirt, pants, and kittel, or overgarment, are white to signify that the met/meta is pure. There are no pockets in any of the garments, and the clothing is simple, to indicate that we are all alike in death. Once the met/meta is clothed, he or she is wrapped in a large sovev (sheet or wrapping cloth) and placed in the aron (casket) in which a small amount of earth from Israel has been sprinkled. The lid is placed on the casket, and is not removed or opened again, in order to preserve the dignity of the met/meta.
Jewish burial is intended to be a natural way to return the body to the earth from which it came. In accordance with this view, the aron, or casket, should be made entirely of wood and should have no metal material so that the casket and that which it contains can decompose naturally and completely. There is no requirement that the aron should be made of pine, but it should be made from a soft wood. The casket should not be ornate in any fashion and should not be manufactured from any company that operates on Shabbat. There is no viewing of the met/meta, and the casket is not opened during the funeral service.
Funeral and Burial
In order to follow the time-honored traditions of Judaism, the met/meta is not embalmed, but is maintained under refrigeration at the funeral home. The funeral is carried out as soon as possible after death, often within 48 hours, although, depending on the circumstances, it may be longer. All Jewish funeral services are closed casket, as it is considered disrespectful to look at someone who cannot look back. It is customary for mourners to perform the ritual of k’riah prior to the service, which involves either cutting the mourner’s garment, or more often, cutting a black ribbon attached to the mourner’s clothing. This act is the outward expression of the tear in the fabric of lives caused by the death of a loved one. This ritual is usually performed to honor and remember a parent, child, sibling, or spouse/partner. Mourners are not required to wear black, but should wear dark clothing and dress conservatively. The funeral service is usually short, with several psalms and prayers recited, and a eulogy given by close family members and the rabbi or prayer leader. The service ends with the recitation of El Malei Rachamim.
Traditionally those attending the funeral service will accompany the casket to the graveside. The burial service is brief and includes the recitation of Kaddish. After the casket is lowered into the grave, it is customary for those in attendance to place earth onto the casket. This is considered the last act of kindness and respect for the one who has died.
Cut flowers do not have a place in a traditional Jewish funeral because they will wither and die. Many people feel it is more appropriate instead to give tzedakah (charity) to honor and remember the deceased.
You will be supplied with k’riah ribbons, copies of the Kaddish prayer with transliteration, cards, and a shiva candle by the directors at Holman’s.
After the Funeral
Upon arriving at the house of mourning after the funeral, you might find a water pitcher with which you are to cleanse your hands three times. Water is the source of life and having just been in contact with death at the cemetery, you should clean yourself to focus on life.
Sitting shiva is a way to mourn and celebrate the life of the deceased at the home of a family member. Family members traditionally sit shiva for a week, but might only receive guests for the first few days. Traditionally, mirrors in a house of mourning are covered during this time, as those grieving should not be concerned with their physical appearance. Those in mourning sit low to the ground or on uncomfortable chairs to show that they are stricken with grief. Jewish mourners traditionally do not wear leather in the shiva house; slippers, socks or sneakers can be worn to show how they have been humbled by loss.
A memorial candle is lit and burns 24 hours a day for 7 days to symbolize the light the person brought to the world and to represent the deceased’s eternal soul.
Following shiva, through the thirtieth day counting from the burial (sheloshim means thirty in Hebrew), mourners return to their regular lives, but refrain from most forms of entertainment such as parties, concerts and movies. They may attend daily minyan in order to recite Kaddish, and continue to wear the k’riah ribbon. The formal period of mourning for a child, spouse or sibling concludes at the end of 30 days.
From the end of sheloshim for the first eleven months, counting from the day of death, those mourning the death of a parent continue to recite Kaddish daily, but after sheloshim can return to their normal lives, although some choose to continue to refrain from entertainment.
About a year after the death, there is an unveiling ceremony where the headstone is placed at the gravesite. Often this is a simple memorial marker. Traditionally the unveiling ceremony is short. Mourners who visit the gravesite leave rocks on the headstone as a symbol that someone has visited.
Yahrzeit is the anniversary of a loved one’s death. It is customary to light a candle that burns for 24 hours in memory of the deceased each year on the anniversary of the death, and to recite Kaddish in synagogue on that day. Traditionally, the Jewish calendar is used to determine the Yahrzeit date. Additionally, Kaddish is recited during Yiskor services at synagogue on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, and on the last day of Pesach and Shavuot. It is traditional to recite Kaddish for a spouse/partner, child, sibling, and parent.