Sephardic Funeral Customs

Sephardic funeral customs vary from those of other Jewish sects.
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The point of a funeral is not to comfort the mourners, but rather to afford honor to the deceased. Therefore, Sephardic Jews, those who are descended or who trace their lineage from Spain, Portugal and North African regions, keep their funerals short and simple.

Sephardic communities take pride in the customs that they pass from generation to generation, and are said to be the most authentic because of this direct lineage. Many of these customs are standard across all Sephardic groups, but there are also some individual to particular groups.

1 Prayers

To begin the services, a few psalms -- generally Psalms 49, 16 and 23 are said at the beginning, while Psalms 1, 15 and 90 are added later on.

The services are continued by a recitation of Tziduk Hadin, a prayer that speaks of the Jewish faith in God as well as the divinity of His justice. Syrian Sephardi Jews recite the Kaddish prayer afterwards.

A rabbi or the learned individual leading the services recites the memorial prayer, an affirmation that God is compassionate and merciful, and that the deceased is now among the righteous who have passed on before her.

Some communities blow the shofar, a ram's horn, after this prayer. Other Sephardic Jews will hire professional wailing women to create the appropriate mood.

2 Eulogies

Family and friends give tribute to the good deeds and qualities of the deceased, called hespedim. Eulogies should be delivered in a raised voice and with poignant words to invoke feelings within those gathered.

The purpose is to create an appropriate atmosphere for the tears of the mourners to flow freely and plentifully. It is clearly stated that one who eulogizes should not exaggerate the deceased's actions but rather focus on his best qualities.

On certain festive occasions, a eulogy is not given because the joy of the community overrides the mourning of a single individual. Such days include: Passover; Sukkot; Shavuot; Hanukkah; Purim; Rosh Chodesh, the festival of the new month; the entire month of Nissan; the eve of the those holidays and Fridays. In fact, on the first and last two days of Passover and Sukkot, Friday night at sundown until Saturday night after nightfall and Shavuot, funerals are not held at all. On Hanukkah, Purim, and intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot, no public mourning is held because of this same principle.

3 Accompanying the Body

After reciting the ritual prayers and giving the eulogies, those gathered escort the casket to the burial site and the actual burial service commences. It is customary for women not to enter the cemetery, though many modern communities have done away with this custom. Accompanying the dead is called the ultimate kindness of truth because, unlike other good deeds, accompanying the deceased cannot be repaid or even acknowledged by the deceased.

This custom is held in such high regard that the all-important commandment of studying the Torah, the Jewish Bible, is cancelled for this task.

According to Jews, studying Torah is the most important aspect of a Jewish life and should be done whenever possible. As such, the fact that accompanying the dead overrides this commandment accentuates the significance of this act.

It is a custom for even people who cannot go to the cemetery itself to walk with the hearse or the gathering of people for a few feet to symbolize their solidarity with the mourners. Sephardim hold that people are to stand the entire time the body is being moved. The body of a rabbi or righteous scholar is carried by hand; pallbearers usually rest the bier of other individuals on their shoulders.

4 The Cemetery

Many Sephardic communities prohibit women from attending services at the cemetery. This is also a custom in some communities for men who have lost their fathers. Upon entering the cemetery, a blessing is said that affirms God's justice in taking this life and in his righteousness in resurrecting the dead. The body is carried with the feet facing forward, and when the casket is entered into the ground, it is turned so the head is facing forward. As the body is buried, a prayer asking God to forgive the deceased's iniquities and extolling God for his compassion is said three times

. In many communities, the rabbi or officiant asks the deceased for forgiveness for any disrespect or harm done during his lifetime.

At the burial of a pious and God-fearing Jew, the casket is laid on the ground and circled seven times. Some throw coins to satisfy the evil spirits, so they will not lay claim on the deceased. It is considered a great act of kindness to shovel dirt onto the grave, though members do not pass the shovel but lay it down and have it taken up by the next person.

5 After the Funeral

Upon leaving the cemetery, all those present wash their hands, but leave them to air dry. Mourners are accompanied home to remind them that they are not alone at this difficult time.

6 Differences Across Communities

In Yemen, the deceased is buried with the feet facing Jerusalem so that, at the time of resurrection, the dead can immediately rise and bow to the holy city. The deceased was followed in black prayer shawls.

Leah Perry has been writing articles, product descriptions and content since 2006 for websites like My Dear Child, Modular Kitchen Cabinets and On Track Lighting. The subjects of her works span topics from children to home and garden, home improvement, sewing and cooking.