What do I need to know about a Jewish Funeral

rob333July 10, 2008

What do I need to do/avoid doing? What should I expect? I'm sorry to ask such questions, but Jewish people are few and far between here. The one I knew and could ask questions is the one we'll be honoring tomorrow; so I can't ask him.

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I'm sorry you've lost a friend/dear one.

I posted a link for you on the Hot Topics Forum, seems like someone "over there" is Jewish.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 6:50PM
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bill_vincent(Central Maine)

Hey Rob-- Long time no see, and sorry to see you again under such circumstances. I saw sylvia's post over on HT, and came over. Just be yourself. Express your condolences, just as you would at any other and give the family their room. The only thing out of the ordinary that may be asked of you is when you go into the synagogue, you'll be asked to wear a yamaka ("skull cap"). Don't refuse it.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 7:07PM
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Hello Rob;
Sorry for your loss, good friends are hard to find. I am also not Jewish but have attend a few funerals. The big difference I found was the people that spoke about the deceased. It was wonderful and I spoke at one of the funerals at the request of my friend's widow. I did make one faux pas (I am still not sure what I did that was not kosher but I was aware I had done something not quite right) but no one made a federal case of it and it was never mentioned again to me.
Just respect the synagogue as you would any religious place and do not be afraid to ask any a question if you are in doubt.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 10:49PM
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Rob - My condolences on the loss of your friend.

Bill gave you good advice. If you are asked to put on a yarmulke, do so. Wear something conservative and modest.

Is the funeral in a synagogue? If so, just stand and sit when the rest of the congregation does so. As a non-Jew, nothing is expected of you except respect. You can say "Amen" after certain prayers along with everyone else.

Is the family sitting shiva? That means that they are staying home for seven days and receiving guests during that time. It's considerate to pay a visit during this time. If they are kosher, don't bring food. Otherwise, something from a bakery would be good (not a fancy cake).

You aren't expected to know the things that are unique to Jewish mourning, so just be yourself. The mood is the same as in other religions - grieving combined with a recalling of happy memories.

You'll be fine. You can't really make a "mistake".

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 11:33PM
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Robin, I'm so sorry for your loss. (((Robin)))

I'm trying to remember back to the funeral of my cousin's wife last year. She was Jewish, and he converted to the faith in order to marry her. The thing that I remember most clearly was the graveside service. The mourners were invited to throw a shovel full of dirt into the open grave after the coffin was lowered into it. I'm hazy now on the details of the "why," but I think it was something to do with the person accepting an unselfish act (of love, maybe?) from someone else which they could not do for themselves. Perhaps if someone else from the Jewish faith stops in here they could explain it better. Anyway, although I found it very hard to do (and dare I admit with sorrow, even a little ghoulish to one raised with very different sensibilities), I participated in this voluntary bit of the ceremony, and the family seemed to appreciate it very much and even take a little comfort from it.

This is going to be a hard day for you, Robin. Know that our thoughts and sunflowers will be there supporting you.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 6:25AM
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Thanks everyone, I really appreciate your guidance and support. It is in a synagogue and the family is incommunicado, so I suspect shiva (he's a friend, but not one I am totally intimate with). I have been certain to approach this with respect in dress and manner. I didn't know about the possibility of a yamaka, but knowing about it prepares me. diene, we told our favorite stories about my FIL when he died. It was more a celebration than a loss, and it made it easier. Today is already harder than I thought it would be. Our division is closed today and I didn't have to be here, but I thought I'd keep busy. So far, I'm just staring and walking. As his assistant said yesterday when I said are you ok? (she looked pale), her answer was "breathing". Took all of our breath I guess.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 8:31AM
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The advice you've gotten here is great and right on. Different communities/families do it different way, depending on how religious they are, but the main stuff is here. If the family is staying to itself as you say, they will be sitting shiva. There will probably be a group prayer called Kaddish, (in my family the women take part, in others it's taboo, ya never know)and it's a very emotional prayer, and you'll think it lasts forever. Jews eat; happy times or sad, there's a spread. The shiva week (and in some very observant families the month following) is the time to grieve, to have nothing else to do but that. Some families suspend the shiva through the Sabbath, Fri and Sat, and start again sat night. As a friend but not a MOT - Member of the Tribe - take your cues from them. We are used to having y'all at our weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals etc. - one of the wonderful things about living in America is how communities form with all sorts of folks - something which sadly happens rarely here. Find a cousin or not-immediate family or friend who wouldn't mind explaining stuff, but don't be surprised if no one knows "why" anything. So much of what we do is because that's the way we do it, and a lot of us have no idea about the reasons. It's the knowing what to do with no thinking, no decisions that comes in handy when the shock of death is fresh - everybody's on automatic pilot. Here, we say to the bereaved "may you only know peaceful times from now on". and that's what I wish you and yours. Batya

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 11:13AM
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I'm so sorry you've lost your friend,Robin. I feel sure you will not cause offense to anyone. You're a respectful and sensitive woman, so be yourself.

A note on Kim's post. In the Church of England, at the graveside, the family is offered soil by the funeral director and we toss a handful into the grave, on top of the coffin. It's a deeply emotional moment for those involved, at least it was for me. Sort of the final goodbye. Goodbye is hard, isn't it?

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 11:42AM
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andie_rathbone(Tyler, TX - 7B)

Sheila, All the Jewish funerals I've been to have been grave site ceremonies & at the end everyone threw a lump of dirt into the grave. And yes, if you were close to the deceased, that's very hard.

At a couple of them the funeral guests (well that's not the right word, but I don't know what is) went back to the family's house as is customary in a gentile funeral for a reception, but sometimes not.

And it's men, not women who wear the yamaka.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 12:24PM
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And it's men, not women who wear the yamaka.

That is correct Robin. But you will be asked to cover your head. You can bring something with you or a piece of cloth (lace) is usually provided at the Synagogue.

I too am sorry for your loss.

Here are some links that might help.


    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 1:01PM
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"Love your neighbor." Everything else follows from there. Doesn't matter where you are/what you are doing/what the rules/who you are.

Old school is the family won't greet you; don't be offended - its customary. Mirrors are covered. Clothing is torn or symbolically torn. Family sits on cushions on the floor or on couch with cushion removed. Other people bring food. Family talks to when they are ready; don't speak first.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 11:10PM
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mrobbins(6b - Brooklyn)

Living in a community where Jewish people are not unusual at all has given me the understanding that like with any other different religion, just let your hosts lead and you follow. In the case of a funeral, look more to fellow guests than to your hosts, who are pretty busy with their own grief.

Robin, the advice you got here is good (there was even one person who spelled yarmulke correctly). The only thing I'd add is that, since you're a woman, it would be respectful to wear a long skirt if you have one, and a long-sleeved blouse or cardigan. This respects the roots of Judaism, which, like many religions that originated in the Middle East, considers it more polite for women to show as little skin and shape as possible. If you have a male guest with you, just to be safe he should not initiate a handshake with a female host; that said, the hosts would have to be pretty conservative/orthodox to respect the tradition that a woman should not touch any man other than her husband.

This reminds me of when my high school chorus went to Toronto to perform a concert. We were put up overnight in the homes of the community for which we were performing, an ethnic enclave of Estonians. One of the hosts served their two young charges a multiple-course Kosher dinner because it was Friday night and of course their guests being from New York City must be Jewish; they'd called their local rabbi and asked what to serve. It was the first time our two girls, who were as WASPy as they come, had ever seen a Shabbat dinner.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 2:55PM
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Good to see you chime in M. I was just sitting and thinking back on the day. I've been listening to the Flower Duet repeatedly. I need to know something is good in this world.

The funeral was good in some ways, like lunch with C and M (who never does anything because she's so shy and I was greatly encouraged she felt comfortable enough to reach out), and we all needed each other, were there for each other. Oddly enough, I was trying to get my heathen husband to understand why I had an undying thirst to find the most appropriate shoes and felt comforted when my friends had the same drive. Even my jewelry and hair were conservative (uncharacteristically), along with garb, even though no one had said it. That said, it was all well done. No one said anything or did anything inappropriately that I saw. Best behaviors and respect abounded. Not that anyone would, but it was good to see him honored so well. Yes, many of the men in our "community" wore a yarmulke and I understood why. No women wore anything on their heads, not even his wife, mother, or sisters. He's reform; maybe that's why.

As we went out to gravesite, I was near the back, I could see a line as long as any I've ever seen at funeral. I was struck by just how many lives he truly touched. Everyone said what I said, a selfless man who was to be revered. A physician, scientist and teacher. His discoveries will live on in those who take his work further. Lifeflight from our hospital coincidentally flew over as we walked the last mile. I didn't do the shovel of dirt thing, only because the line went on forever and my friends had reached their limit. If it hurts this much to lose someone I didn't really know (I thought I did!, but obviously not), how much is it going to hurt to lose someone like my direct boss, husband, son, day in-day out friends?

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 3:22PM
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