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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.

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