HMS-18: Laws Relating to Death II – The Funeral

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

August 20, 2003 – Number 18

Laws Relating to Death II – The Funeral

A funeral in Judaism should be done as quickly as possible after a death. Usually there is a limit of three days unless more people can fly in or the burial will take place in Israel. In Judaism, burial is always in the ground, not in a mausoleum, and we do not permit cremation. In Israel the dead are buried only in a shroud, but here we use a casket made of wood (not metal). All Jewish funerals are closed casket. We do not display the dead for others to see. Needless to say we do not embalm the dead nor apply cosmetics since these are to make the dead ready to be viewed. These rules may have their source in very ancient Jewish practice, as a polemic against the elaborate Egyptian customs relating to the mummification and entombment of their dead.
There are seven relatives who are required to mourn. Father, Mother, Brother, Sister, Daughter, Son and Spouse. Other are permitted to mourn but are not required. We do not offer words of comfort to the mourners until the burial is finished. As long as the dead lie before them, there can be no meaningful comfort to the bereaved. All we can say to someone who is preparing a funeral for a loved one is “Baruch Dyan Emet” meaning G-d is a righteous Judge and implying that while we do not understand G-d’s decisions, we have faith that G-d’s actions are true and righteous.
A Jewish funeral has two parts. The Eulogy (Hesped) and the interment. Both can be done grave side but a chapel service is permitted. The eulogy is introduced by the reading of Psalms and other appropriate passages. It should recall the life of the one who has died and we should recall only the good that they did in life. The Eulogy can be done by the Rabbi, friends or even the mourners if they are up to the task. One can also write the eulogy for someone else to read. It is not a time, however, to settle scores nor embarrass the dead or their family. We must remember that some things are always better left unsaid if they embarrass, or are hurtful to the dead or to the family.
The Interment involved lowering the body into the ground, filling in the grave( or at least symbolically placing earth on the grave, a memorial prayer for the dead, and reciting Kaddish. It is a very great Mitzvah to attend a funeral, since it is done with pure motivation of love for the deceased. The deceased can not, after all, thank you for the honor you are showing by attending the burial. The casket is lowered since we are there for the interment and until the body is lowered, that has not been accomplished. We put earth on the grave as a sign of love and respect. After all, it is the only thing we can never do for ourselves. We rely on others to fill in our grave. The first shovel of earth is done with the shovel reversed, on the back of the shovel. This indicates that we are not in a hurry to do this work and it is an act of love and reverence, not just another day in the garden.
After the interment is finished, and we have shown all the honor we can for the deceased, we turn our attention to the family and the mourners. The friends form two lines, facing each other, forming a path from the grave to the street. The family leaves the grave side by walking the path between the two lines, so that from the moment the burial is over, they are surrounded by friends offering words of comfort. Tradition tells us that we console them with the words “May G-d comfort you as G-d comforts all the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem. This means that we are all mourners, if not for our own dead, than we mourn for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. There are some who feel that since the rebirth of the Jewish State in Israel, we are no longer mourners for “Zion and Jerusalem”. They only say, “May G-d give you comfort.”
A gravestone is not placed until at least 30 days from the date of the funeral. The American custom is to erect the monument around the time of the first anniversary of the date of death (The Yahrtzeit.) It should be done at a time when the family can get together again to mark the occasion.

Next week: Laws Relating to Death III – Shiva

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