How to Attend a Jewish Funeral and Burial
The Jewish funeral and burial are set up both to honor the dead and begin the mourning process for those still living. Jewish funerals usually take place in a synagogue, a funeral chapel, or at a cemetery, and while by tradition they’re simple (symbolizing the belief that people are all equal in death), they vary widely and have no set liturgy.
Just before the funeral, close relatives (traditionally, siblings, spouse, parents, or children of the deceased) observe the rite of k’riah, making a small rip — in a tie, a coat, a blouse, or perhaps the sleeve of a dress — as a symbol of grief.
Many Jews pin a black ribbon to their jacket and then tear that. Generally, those mourning the loss of a parent rip the left side of their garment (or place the ribbon on the left), and rip the right side for other relatives.
The point is that Judaism doesn’t want you to just show up; it wants you to really show your grief, without regard to vanity or decorum, and the k’riah is like ripping open a bag of grief to allow the tears and strong emotions to fall out.
Similarly, the eulogy (called a hesped) given by a rabbi, friend, or family member, honors the deceased and helps the mourners feel the depth of the loss. The Hebrew word for funeral is levayah, which means to accompany, and you may see Jews walking behind the hearse to the graveside, often stopping to recite psalms, and then finally reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish.
At the end of the funeral, when the casket is lowered into the ground, the closest family or friends throw the first dirt over it, often using a shovel or their hands. By encouraging the mourners to actively participate in the burial, to hear the earth landing on the casket, Jewish tradition ensures that people recognize the reality of death and helps them begin the process of letting go.
The traditional practice is for each family member to add three shovels of dirt to the grave using the back or rounded part of the shovel rather than the scoop to symbolically say how reluctant one is to lose this loved one.
Perhaps it’s just superstitious, but it’s also the custom for each person to return the shovel to the mound of dirt because passing it directly to the next person in line is like handing them sorrow.
You may attend a Jewish funeral and find a traditional Jew remaining outside the funeral parlor or cemetery, even if he is a close friend or relative of the deceased.
Men who are descendants of the priestly class, called Kohanim (and who often have last names like Cohen or Kahn) are forbidden by Jewish law to come close to a corpse. Except for very close relatives, Kohanim don’t enter the actual cemetery area. Sometimes their relatives are buried near the outer perimeter of the lot so that they can approach as closely as possible.
All traditional Jews consider being near a dead person an act that makes them ritually impure, so they typically wash their hands either before leaving the cemetery or before entering the house of mourning. Often, a pitcher of water is made available outside the house of mourning for all to rinse their hands in symbolic purification.