The Jewish Funeral Custom of Covering the Eyes of the Deceased
29 SEP 2017
In traditional Jewish funerals, the body is prepared for burial in a special way, involving a series of steps. One step is covering the eyes of the deceased, usually with pieces of pottery. Covering the deceased's eyes is a part of Jewish funeral arrangements that draws its significance from its symbolic role in the proceedings.
Jewish communities have a Chevra Kadisha, or "Holy Society," which Chabad.org describes as a group of "dedicated men and women who are committed to ensuring that every Jew who passes on is accorded a proper Jewish burial." An important part of these individuals' role is known as taharah. Taharah is the ritual cleansing of the body before burial. During this cleansing, those in charge of the funeral preparations will wash and dress the body according to custom. They will also close and cover the eyes of the deceased.
2 Covering the Eyes
There is some debate surrounding the covering of the eyes. The Jewish Mourning Guide notes that "the eyes... should be closed, preferably by a firstborn son." This tradition comes from Genesis 46:4, where Joseph closes his father Jacob's eyes upon the latter's death. Some modern Jews give the task of closing a parent's eyes to the child regardless of gender.
3 Materials for Covering
Most sources say that pottery shards should be used for covering a dead person's eyes. However, MazorGuides says that some communities simply put ashes on the eyes, while Ruth Langer of Boston College notes in her article, "Jewish Funerals: A Ritual Description," that the child may cover them "with some dirt or a potsherd." All of these items share the characteristic of coming from the ground, which might imply that any sort of soil- or dust-related object could be appropriate for this part of the funeral preparations.
4 Symbolism and Significance
In the experience of Nancy Kalikow Maxwell, library director at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, the eyes of the deceased are covered with broken pottery "to show that the vessel of her soul is now broken." MazorGuides interprets the reason for covering the eyes as intended to recall the words from Genesis 3:19, "unto dust you shall return." The Tri-City Jewish Center in Rock Island, Illinois, argues that it is "a symbolic reminder of human frailty." Clearly, different groups and individuals ascribe a range of meaning to the custom of covering the eyes during burial preparations.