jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Attitude to Death

True Kindness

Death is the most certain thing in the world; at some point, everyone must face it. Jewish tradition deals extensively with every aspect of death, bereavement, burial and mourning. When confronted by death only an insensitive person would neglect to mourn for a loved one.

Burial of the dead is a Mitzvah / מצוה — a scriptural commandment, that the Jewish tradition calls “Chesed Shel Emet / חסד של אמת” — true act of kindness[ 01 ], quoting from Genesis 47:29, where Joseph promises his father to bury him in the Land of Israel. When you do good deeds towards others even without asking for repayment of the favor, deep in your heart you still think that one day this favor might be reciprocated. Not so with the Mitzvah of burial. The deceased, obviously, is no longer capable of returning any favors. Therefore, tending to the dead, helping with the funeral, mourning, and remembering a loved one is a special act of kindness unblemished by any ulterior motives.

When we look at the Egyptian pyramids, Scythian kurgans, etc. — we see that the antique nations were obsessed with death. An important function of their priests was to attend to all aspects of death, which included participation in the rituals related to death and the burial of the dead. Their beliefs required them to build magnificent graves and stock them with food, weapons, garments and jewelry. They even found it necessary to kill slaves and horses to include them with the items placed in the tombs of noblemen. Their beliefs also required either preserving their dead by embalming or completely destroying them by cremation.

Customs and traditions are based primarily on a system of beliefs. Consequently, this guide starts with the fundamentals of Jewish attitude towards death and then follows with the definition of burial, requirements pertaining to a Jewish cemetery, the obligation of burial and the functions of the Chevra Kadisha / חברה קדישא — burial society. Mourners and their obligations are defined next and only then do we proceed to provide the details of Jewish funeral and mourning traditions.

There are two distinct aspects of Jewish funeral, burial and mourning traditions: Yekara DeShichva / יקרא דשיכבא — respectful treatment of the deceased and Yekara DeChaye / יקרא דחיי — concern for the mourners. This concise guide will trace how the focus shifts from one aspect to the other during the stages of the mourning process.

[ 01 ] The Hebrew word Emet / אמת - truth, can be viewed as an acronym, which stands for “does not anticipate repayment / אינו מצפה תשלום”. Alternatively, it can be interpreted as an acronym for the necessities of burial: ארון, מיטה, תכריכין.