Mourners & the Mourned: Jewish Funeral Customs & Rituals


Eleven elderly people were gunned down. The graphic horror of the scene is hard to imagine. Yet the bodies of the murdered had to be tended to as soon as was possible. And that was early Sunday morning, almost 24 hours after they were slaughtered in what is reported to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in the U.S. in recent history.

Eleven senior citizens, the eldest, Rose Mallinger was 97, were shot to death Saturday morning in the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hills, neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The man alleged to have committed the atrocity, Robert Bowers, 46, stormed into the house of worship on the Sabbath and declaring “All Jews must die,” and opened fire. On old, and in several cases very old, people.

Judaism has very specific and ancient rituals it adheres to in life and in death. In death, Jewish customs are dissimilar to Christian customs in a number of ways beginning with the preparing of the body.

Here’s what you need to know:

Caring for the Dead

A man’s silhouettes is seen as he walks near a memorial on October 28, 2018 outside the Tree of Life synagogue. (Getty Images)

Respect for the body is of the utmost importance. A ritual cleansing of the body, called a Taharah, must be done. In this case, given the horror of the deaths, ZAKA Search and Rescue, a non-governmental organization made up of volunteers, worked with authorities and then, went into the synagogue, with the bodies still on the floor to prepare and care for the elderly victims.

“ZAKA Search and Rescue USA volunteers, in cooperation with the FBI at the scene of the shooting attack, have completed a first visit at the scene in Pittsburgh, making an initial identification of the bodies.

The ZAKA volunteers await permission to enter the Etz Haim synagogue, in order to clear the scene of human remains and spilled blood and treat the bodies for burial in accordance with Jewish law.

ZAKA Chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav: “We grieve together with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and pray for the full and speedy recovery of the wounded. ZAKA Search and Rescue USA volunteers are on the ground, waiting to enter and treat the bodies of the murdered, which are still where they fell. Our volunteers will also work with the community to offer assistance in all matters related to this tragic and horrific attack.”

When a Jewish person dies, the body is cleaned, wrapped in simple cloth, usually linen, candles are lit and the body is never left alone.

There are no autopsies, no desecration of the body unless local law mandates it. There’s no embalming, no viewing of the body, such as an open casket, no removal of organs and no cremation. And the body must be buried as soon as possible and in the earth in a Jewish cemetery.

Mourning the Dead

Vigil participants hold candles and sing a Jewish prayer during a Havdalah vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in front of the White House. (Getty Images)

There are phases of mourning beginning with immediate expression of grief, which may include keriyah, the tearing of clothing near the heart. This first phase is called aninut when the families grieve alone. The burial comes next and a meal of condolence is prepared for the family. Next is shiva, meaning seven because it lasts seven days and begins the day of the burial. It’s called ‘sitting’ shiva because mourners sit on low stools or the floor instead of chairs. Observant mourners do not wear leather shoes, a practical and symbolic luxury, they do not work, their normal lives are interrupted, they avoid comfortable and pleasant things which may include grooming from bathing to wearing makeup to having sex. The mirrors in the home of the dead are covered. Prayers including the Kaddish, called the mourners prayer, are recited and Torah study occurs.

Shiva ends after seven days.

A man walks past a memorial on October 28, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue. (Getty Images)

Other periods of mourning are observed when a parent died, for example, called avelut, which can last 12 months.

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