A First-Timers’ Guide to Attending a Jewish Funeral
Jewish funerals rarely offer surprises to anyone who has been to a Christian funeral. The Jewish rites are similar, though the words and prayers are often different.
There are, however, a few things you should keep in mind when attending a Jewish funeral or visiting the mourners afterward:
Even though the casket is always closed, some mourners pass by it before or immediately following the funeral service to pay their last respects.
Men should wear a dark yarmulke (kippah) in the synagogue and at the gravesite. One is usually provided if you don’t have one.
Because idle conversation is generally discouraged during a Jewish funeral, it’s probably best to remain silent or only participate in the prayers during the service.
Anyone (male, female, Jew, or non-Jew) can be a pallbearer, and it’s a great blessing and a mitzvah to do so.
At the end of the burial, rabbis often ask that friends and more distant relatives stand in two lines so that the immediate mourners can walk between them, a symbol that they aren’t alone and that others support their grief. Those assembled say, Ha-Makom y’nachem etchem b’toch sh’ar av’lay Tzion Veerushalayim. (May God comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.)
After the funeral, the family usually holds a reception. Come in quietly, sit near the mourner(s) and take your cues from them: Don’t speak until spoken to, talk about what they want to talk about rather than impose your own thoughts, and don’t try to cheer them up.
The reception sometimes turns into a time for socializing and catching up — if that happens, make sure it happens someplace else, away from the mourners. These courtesies also apply when visiting someone during the week following a Jewish funeral. Remember that you’re providing consolation simply by being there.
Sending flowers to a funeral or a mourner’s home is strongly discouraged in Judaism. Not only will they wither and die in a few days but Jews think of flowers as prettying up or hiding a stark reality. Instead, simply offer your presence. It is customary to give charity in memory of the one who died.
Ask the individuals organizing the reception and care of the family during the week of mourning what you can do to help: bring food, do a few hours of babysitting, make a trip to the grocery or the airport. The idea is that the mourners shouldn’t have to do anything themselves, and small acts make a big difference at this time.