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Jewish Death Practices:
Learning & Resources:
Few mitzvot in Judaism are more important than escorting the dead to the grave and comforting the bereaved. While the details of observance may vary from Ashkenzai to Sephardi and from Orthodox to Reform, all observance is based on a common core of principles.
- We believe that life is holy. The body which once held life retains its sanctity after death. Our sages compared the deceased to a damaged Torah scroll, which is holy even if it is not usable. Therefore, in Jewish tradition, the greatest consideration and respect is accorded the dead.
- We accept our equality and humility in the face of death. Thus, we avoid ostentation and adhere to the same simplicity and dignity for the rich and the poor, the influential and the powerless, the famous and the little known.
- We understand that death is natural and is part of creation. We face death without masquerade. The hallmark of our burial practices is dust to dust.
- Once burial has occurred, our concern is for the living. As a community, we have an obligation to comfort the bereaved - to help them face their loss, express their grief, and overcome their sorrow. By fulfilling these obligations, the community restores the faith of the bereaved and helps bind them to life.
In the event of death…
...turn to your community. Before calling a funeral company, call your synagogue or temple and speak with the Rabbi, a Bereavement or Support Committee member, the director or an officer. To avoid confusion and diminish the pressures of making arrangements, you would be wise to become acquainted with the services offered by your synagogue or temple before the time of urgent need.
The Jewish Way
- Most funeral practices are a matter of Jewish law for Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and reflect Jewish values for Reform, Reconstructionist, and other Jews; while observances vary, all are based on the Jewish approach to death
- People should not be left to die alone, but should be comforted to the end
- The body should be treated with respect and not left unattended, to the extent possible; the practice of sh'mira (watching or guarding from death to burial while reading psalms) and tahara (ritual washing) reflect that respect.
- Jewish tradition spurns the indignities visited on the body in the process of embalming; embalming is never required by the civil law
- Exhibition, cremations and routine autopsies are all viewed as inconsistent with the honor due the body, the vessel of the soul
- Traditional practices include early burial, the use of a plain white shroud, and a simple all wood coffin
- The playing of music and ostentatious floral displays are discouraged by Jewish tradition
- The funeral service includes a eulogy and the prayer El Molei Rachamim
- Mourners express their grief and remember the dead by symbolically tearing a garment through the ceremony of Keriah at the time of the funeral, observing Shiva followed by mourning periods of 30 days (Sheloshim) and one year, dedicating a monument, reciting Kaddish annually and attending Yizkor services
- The community is encouraged to comfort the mourner by participating in the funeral, providing a meal of condolence for the bereaved, and visiting and consoling the bereaved during Shiva
- Charity is given to honor the deceased
The Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington is prepared to assist congregations and their funeral and bereavement support committees by:
- Assisting in the formation and organization of a committee
- Supplying resources materials such as sample checklists, educational guides, and readings
- Providing speakers
- Providing access to contractual arrangements
The JFPCGW provides services to congregations, committees, and other organizations. We will respond to questions from individuals as best we can.