Estate planning attorneys work with clients from many faiths. Understanding each faith’s funeral traditions allows you to better help the families you serve.
As the Doyenne of Death® and Vice-President of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue of New Mexico, I help explain Jewish traditions to our Christian brethren. Here are a few key things to know about Jewish funerals.
The 24-Hour Rule
The Jewish tradition of burying a body within 24 hours has Biblical as well as practical roots. Practically, the religion started in a hot desert culture, before the advent of modern refrigeration or embalming techniques. In fact, many aspects of Jewish funerals are echoed in Muslim funeral traditions.
Decomposition sets in within 24 hours without refrigeration or embalming, so burying quickly became a hallmark of Jewish funerals. The rules dictated in the Bible come from Deuteronomy 21:23: “Thou shalt bury him the same day,” and “His body shall not remain all night.”
Jewish Burial Equals Green Burial
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: Traditionally, Jews avoid embalming, as the blood is considered a part of the body, which is to be kept as intact as possible. The body is dressed in white cotton or linen clothing or shrouds. The casket is made of soft wood such as pine or poplar, meant to biodegrade in contact with the earth. The body, clothing and wood all decompose at about the same rate.
The custom of sending fragrant flowers to funerals originated in part to cover the smell of a decomposing body. Because of the promptness of Jewish burial, flowers are unnecessary. Memorial donations to a worthy cause supported by the deceased are the preferred way to show your sympathy.
Jews generally avoid viewing the body at a funeral, as it’s considered disrespectful of the earthly vessel that once held the human spirit.
However, the body is traditionally watched over prior to the funeral by a shomer (translated as observer or watchman) who recites prayers for the deceased. This has a practical basis going back to the desert culture origin, to keep wild animals from eating the body before burial.
Community Support After the Funeral
One of the biggest differences between Christians and Jews in funerals is when the family receives the support of their community. Christians may spend several days in visitation and viewings leading up to the funeral. Jews bury quickly and the family spends time after the funeral receiving the support of their community during the seven-day period of mourning known as shiva (translated as seven).
For more information about the many traditions related to Jewish funerals and mourning, check out www.ShivaConnect.com. It is a great resource that also offers a free service to help families coordinate communications and food following a funeral.
Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death®, is author of the award-winning book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and host of the new television interview series, A Good Goodbye TV. She speaks regularly to Jewish and Christian groups and helps start funeral planning conversations. Her website is www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
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