At a Jewish funeral, or levayah, it is customary for dirt to be thrown upon the body or casket of the deceased. This may be done by hand or with a shovel. Its meaning is both religous and cultural and subject to several interpretations. Jewish law forbids cremation and it is important that the body decomposes naturally in the ground. The throwing of dirt on the coffin marks the beginning of this process as well as the deceased’s departure from the living world.
The physical act of burial can help bring a sense of closure to a grieving family, partly because they are directly involved in the final act. Traditionally the shovel is passed from one family member to the next, or else placed in the earth and then retrieved by the next family member. This shared task of burial unites the family in a common action.
Burial has also been compared to the planting of a seed. The body, like the seed, disintegrates only to emerge in a new form. In the case of the deceased, this will occur after the coming of the Messiah. The Hebrew word "levayah" translates as "escorting" and it may comfort relatives to think that they are not saying goodbye so much as escorting the deceased from one world into Olam HaBah, the World To Come.
Dust to Dust
At a biological level, the life cycle is symbolized by the throwing of dirt onto the casket. The transfer of energy from the earth to plants and animals and back again is represented by this burial ritual. In this respect, it is reminiscent of the Anglican custom in which the words "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" are recited as the body is lowered into the grave.
It is customary at some Jewish festivals for the reverse side of the shovel to be used when depositing dirt on the casket. This is to indicate the mourners' despair at performing such a task. It is also the custom at some Jewish funeral ceremonies to insert the shovel in the ground before the subsequent family member picks it up. This is to symbolize the family's wish that death isn't contagious. It is also done to indicate an unfamiliarity with the upsetting task of burial.
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