Jewish Funeral Etiquette for Gentiles

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at a Jewish cemetery
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It can be awkward to attend ceremonies for a culture different than your own. This is especially true of a funeral where there is very little notice and a short time to find out what the correct behavior is. There is no Jewish law stating that a gentile, or a non-Jew, cannot attend a Jewish funeral.

1 Preparing for the Funeral

You will get little time to prepare for a Jewish funeral because Jewish law stipulates that burial should be within 24 hours of death. It is best not to try to contact the bereaved family before the funeral because they will likely be busy making arrangements. If you need to make travel arrangements do this as soon as you know when and where the funeral will take place. Jewish funerals do not include music or flowers and the casket should be closed. Prepare to arrive about half an hour before the funeral is scheduled to start; this will allow you time to offer condolences to the family.

2 Dress

Modesty is the key to dressing for a Jewish funeral. For men a sports jacket and slacks or a suit are appropriate. Out of respect a man should wear a kippah -- a skullcap, also known as a yarmulke. Women should wear a knee length skirt and a modest top colors. At more observant funerals women wear a scarf, a hat or another head covering. The funeral will usually take place in a funeral home and head coverings for both men and women often are provided.

3 At the Funeral

The coffin is placed at the head of the room where the funeral is held. The mourners -- spouse, children and siblings -- enter after everyone else is assembled. It is not appropriate to approach the mourners at this time. If this is a chapel or funeral home, take your cue from the family. Do not sit until they sit. If the service is at the cemetery it will be brief but do not sit on or stand on any graves. The mourners will either sit in the front or stand near the coffin. Eulogies, or hespadim, may be said in honor of the deceased. A rabbi or nonmourning family member will lead the prayer service which follows. Prayers may be said in Hebrew. Many funeral homes provide translated versions of prayers being said. This includes the 23rd Psalm, the memorial prayer,Kel Molay Rachamim and the Mourner's Kaddish. Listen to the words in respectful silence and say "Amen" at the end.

4 Going to the Cemetery

It is considered a deed of kindness to escort the deceased so that she is not alone when beginning the soul's journey to the world to come. Walk behind the coffin for 6 to 8 feet. At the cemetery listen respectfully to the the brief service consisting of Psalms and prayers. Say Amen at the end. People form two rows and the mourners walk through to leave the cemetery. As the mourners leave it is appropriate to say the ancient formula 'May the Omnipresent comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem'. This is also said at the house of mourning when you visit. When the service is over, wash your hands before leaving the cemetery.

5 After the Funeral

The mourners will go to the home of the deceased or one of the family members to begin the seven day mourning period known as shiva. You may visit the mourners to offer condolences and comfort. This is a very important deed of kindness or a mitzvah. Sit with the family and discuss pleasant memories of the departed or allow them to tell you what they are feeling. Flowers are not an appropriate item to bring to a house of shiva, but a donation made to the deceased's favorite charity or a gift of food for the mourners is. Do not stay too long. Take leave by saying "May the Omnipresent comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

Rivka Ray has been writing professionally since 1978, contributing to publications such as the National Review Online. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of North Carolina and a Bachelor of Science in medicine from the American College in Jerusalem. Ray has also taught English as a second language to adults.