Jewish & Muslim Burial Practices

Orthodox Jewish men at a funeral service.
... Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Both Islam and Judaism highly regulate the burial of the deceased within their communities. The Jewish tradition tells of a raven that showed Adam and Eve what to do with the body of their dead son Abel by scratching at the earth to reveal the buried body of one of its own. In the Quran, a crow is sent by Allah to show Cain how to bury his brother Abel. As a result, burial of the dead is a religious obligation in both religions and for a body to go unburied is a great affront.

1 Rules About Burials

Both traditions require the prompt burial of the dead. Ideally, the body is to be buried on the same day of the death. Islam and Judaism forbid embalming and routine autopsies as desecration of the dead. However, both religions consider organ donation as permissible. Muslims are strictly forbidden from cremating the dead while Jewish rules on cremation vary. Conservative Jews oppose cremation while it is an increasingly more popular and acceptable practice among Reform Jews.

2 Preparing the Body

Muslims are obligated to perform ghusl, or washing, on the body of the deceased member of the community. A deceased man should be washed by a male relative and a deceased woman by a female relative. All clothes are removed from the body with private areas covered. The body is then washed three times with a combination of water and scented oils similar to performing wudu, or the ablutions, required before prayer. The body is then wrapped in a plain white cloth called a kafan, which consists of three pieces of material for men and five pieces for women. The kafan is knotted at the head and feet.

Judaism also requires the body of the deceased to be washed and dressed in a process called taharah. Washing of the body, called rechitzah, is performed by members of the chevra kadisha, a society of individuals responsible for the proper burial of deceased members of the Jewish community. Similar to the Muslim washing practices, Jewish tradition holds that a deceased male should be washed by a man and a female by a woman. After the body is washed, it is ritually purified either by submersion in mikvah, or ritual bath, or by a continuous stream of water poured over the body. The body is then wrapped in a white shroud, typically made from linen or muslin, called tachrichim. Often, deceased men will be buried wearing a yarmulke and tallit, or prayer shawl.

3 Funerals and Mourning

Muslim mourners pray for the deceased in a congregational prayer led by an Imam positioned between the mourners and the wrapped body. He stands at the head of the body if the deceased is male and at the middle of the body if female, facing qibla, or the direction of Mecca. The prayer involves takbir, or the declaration that “God is great,” and reading the Quranic passage Surat al-Fatihah. The wrapped body is then carried to the cemetery in an open bier with mourners marching behind the body. While weeping is acceptable, exaggerated displays of mourning, like wailing and the tearing of clothing, is forbidden.

Jewish funerals involve prayer, a eulogy, and reading of psalms. Typically, the prayers performed are El Maleh Rachamim, or the memorial prayer, and Mourner's Kaddish, or the mourner's blessing. Eulogies should praise the deceased and express the sorrow of the mourners. Jews perform a mourning ritual called keriah wherein a piece of clothing is torn to symbolize grief. For the death of a parent, the tear should be on the left side, over the hear. For all other relations, the tear should be on the right side.

4 Interment

Muslims do not bury their dead in caskets, instead Muslims are buried directly in an excavated grave. Relatives of the deceased orient the body to face qibla, the direction of Mecca. No possessions should accompany the deceased in the grave and the grave should not be decorated. Jewish law prescribes the deceased be buried in a simple pine box made without any metal components. At the grave site, a Rabbi recites various prayers and the Mourner's Kaddish. Traditionally, each mourner places dirt in the grave after the casket has been lowered.

Amy Sachman holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Florida and an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas. She has traveled extensively in North Africa and South Asia.