Burial Traditions of Orthodox Jews

An Orthodox Jew is wrapped in a white linen shroud and tallit.
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Traditional Judaism practiced by Orthodox Jews is a framework of rituals and customs dictated by the writings in the Torah, the laws given to Moses by God, and the Talmud, the oral interpretation of those laws told to Moses by God. Those rituals and customs provide a roadmap by which observant Jews live and die as righteous men and women. Even in this modern day, their burials follow ages-old traditions.

1 Death and Mourning

Judaism acknowledges the enormous grief of those who have lost a loved one, and the customs that have existed for more than 4,000 years provide a way by which mourners move through their grief to rejoin their communities. To Orthodox Jews, the most important task is to show respect for the deceased, because they believe that the body was the vessel that held the soul in life (Kevod ha-met). It is only after burial that condolences can be offered and the mourning begun (Nichum avelim).

2 Immediately Following Death

Immediately following death, the eyes and mouth of the deceased are closed and the body is covered with a sheet. The feet of the deceased are required to face the door.

Because the soul is believed to be in a state of confusion following the death of the body to which it was attached, candles are lit, particularly at the head of the deceased, to keep negative influences away. A guard (Shomar) stays with the body until the funeral service. The Shomar may recite the 23rd or 91st Psalms over the body, and mourners must refrain from speaking.

3 Chevra Kadisha

Jewish custom provides that, in death, all Jews are to be treated alike. Therefore, within 30 minutes of death, the Chevra Kadisha, a group of individuals from the Orthodox community, will begin the process of preparing the dead for burial. This high honor requires the body to be washed with warm water in a specific pattern and dressed in garments prescribed by law, including a white linen shroud. A Jewish man will usually also be wrapped in his prayer shawl (tallit).

4 Funeral Procession

Following the preparation of the body for burial, dictates require it to be placed in a plain wooden coffin (or no coffin at all, a custom practiced in Israel and some other Orthodox communities). The coffin is never allowed to be open and is therefore sealed. Orthodox Jews, following the adage "dust to dust," will drill holes in the bottom of the coffin so the deceased can come in contact with the earth.

5 Actual Burial

Orthodox Jews believe they are commanded to dig the grave by hand. After that is done, the coffin (if one is used) is placed in the grave. After the prayers, including the Kaddish (mourner's prayer), the family is responsible for covering the casket with earth. The shovel is laid on the ground between mourners (so as not to pass around death by passing the shovel), and each throws a shovelful on the coffin. Finally, those accompanying the mourners form a double line and, as the family passes, offer condolences.

Michele Rosen has been writing for more than 20 years. Her articles have appeared in the "Academy of Education, Journalism and Mass Communication Journal" and the "New Jersey League of Municipalities Magazine." She has also written numerous columns published in Gannett newspapers. Rosen holds a B.S. in industrial engineering and an M.A. in organizational communications.