Reform Jewish Funeral, Mourning, Burial at Sea and Cremation

It must be understood that while this information was furnished by reliable sources, there are many different opinions between those of Jewish faith, and any Jew contemplating cremation or burial at sea should seek council with a rabbi or spiritual director who they trust. This essay is provided by a funeral director and describes reformed, or modern tradition. To read about more about traditional, or orthodox Jewish funeral customs, click here.

The Purpose of Funerals

Regardless of the final disposition, whether it is burial or cremation, funerals serve a purpose. The funeral declares that a death has occurred. It commemorates the life that has been lived, and offers family and friends the opportunity to pay tribute to their loved one.

The gathering of family and friends for the visitation and funeral service helps provide emotional support so needed at this time. It also helps those who grieve to face the reality of death and take the first steps toward healthy emotional adjustment.

Until a bereaved person truly accepts the fact that a death has occurred, little progress can be made in resolving his or her grief. In some cases viewing the body of the deceased can fulfill specific psychological needs of surviving family members.

Funeral Service and Disposition Options

If someone dies at home, 911 (or the hospice provider if the decedent was under hospice care) should be called. After an initial inquiry of the circumstances of death the body is transferred to a funeral home. In some cases the police may authorize removal of the body to the County medical examiner for further inquiry as to the cause of death. In any event, a physician will need to determine the cause of death and sign the death certificate.

Get several copies of the certified death certificate. Immediately notify the decedent's accounts (banks, credit card companies, etc.) that the account holder is deceased, and request in writing that the accounts be frozen until such time as a representative of the estate is appointed. Include a copy of the death certificate, and reference the relevant account number with each request.

After the body arrives at the funeral home the family will be asked to make some decisions concerning disposition of the remains, and what services they wish to accompany it.

Direct disposition, by burial or cremation is the least expensive method. The funeral director arranges for burial or cremation, and delivers the body for disposition. If the deceased is to be buried a casket must be selected. If cremation is used a container for transportation of the body and an urn (for the remains) is selected. Burial has been practiced since the Paleolithic period. It is the most common form of disposition in Christian, Jewish and Islamic societies.

There are two basic types of caskets: metal and wood. Metal caskets are bronze, copper, stainless steel, or steel. Wood caskets are mahogany, walnut, maple, cherry, pecan, oak, or pine. Grave vaults (to contain the casket in the ground) consist of a concrete lining. Additional lining is available in double or triple reinforced versions. The double reinforced vaults consist of a concrete layer plus a special purpose polyurethane liner. Triple reinforced vaults in addition have a copper, bronze, or stainless steel lining.

Grave markers come in flat, raised and/or angled versions, and upright monuments. Flat markers are either bronze or granite, raised markers and monuments are granite. Monuments are often erected to mark 4 or more related graves. Each cemetery operates under different rules and procedures, which effects the available burial and marker options. Cemetery lots can be purchased in advance, usually in 4-grave or 6-grave lots. Despite misconceptions that burial space is limited, studies have shown that space is available to serve future needs for at least another century.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the cost differential between cremation and burial is minimal. Cremation dates back to the later prehistoric era. It is the traditional method of Hindus and Buddhists, and has become more popular in the past thirty years. Cremation is a reduction of the body by incineration for several hours to small skeletal fragments. The fragments are then placed in a memorial urn which may be buried, placed in a memorial niche, or kept in some other location, such as the home. The fragments may also be scattered as desired.

A memorial niche is part of a columbarium, which in turn is the part of a mausoleum set aside for cremated remains. A mausoleum is a building which contains several vaults for entombment. These vaults are either burial vaults, called crypts, or the aforementioned columbariums.

Entombment in a mausoleum is one of the oldest forms of disposition, dating before Christ. Most cemeteries maintain crypts for entombment which may be in a mausoleum or in an outdoor garden.

Various memorial services can accompany the final disposition of the body. They should be personalized to reflect the life of the deceased and the special meanings family and friends attach to the deceased's life. Religious affiliation is of course the foundation of many funeral services. Services can also reflect the ethnicity, social affiliations, occupation, community work or other life activities of the deceased. Memorial services can be held at a private home, a house of worship, the funeral home, or at the grave site or crematorium.

A funeral service is a special type of memorial service where the body of the deceased is delivered for final disposition during or following the service. It is generally held at a place of worship, the funeral home, and/or the place of final disposition. It is usually conducted by clergy. If the body is to be viewed during the ceremony embalming is generally required.

The first few rows of seating at a funeral service are reserved for the family. Seating at a gravesite service is often limited to family members. If you are not familiar with a particular religious service it is customary to participate as desired by following the practice of others in attendance.

A wake, also known as a formal visitation, is another type of memorial service, and is frequently used by Christians. It is typically held at a funeral home. The body of the deceased is usually present, with the casket either open or closed.

Funeral Etiquette

Although common sense and good discretion are always the best guides to proper funeral etiquette, a few principles apply.

Upon learning of a death, close friends of the bereaving family if possible should visit the family's home to offer sympathy and assistance – this is sometimes referred to as a condolence visit. It may include helping with food preparation and child care. The visit can take place any time within the first few weeks of death, and may be followed with one or more additional visits, depending on the circumstances and your relationship with the family.

In addition to expressing sympathy it is appropriate, if desired, to relate to family members your fond memories of the deceased. In some cases family members may simply want you to be a good listener to their expressions of grief or memories of the deceased. In most circumstances it is not appropriate to inquire as to the cause of death.

If you attend a wake you should approach the family and express your sympathy. As with the condolence visit it is appropriate to relate your memories of the deceased. If you were only acquainted with the deceased (and not the family) you should introduce yourself.

It is customary to show your respects by viewing the deceased if the body is present and the casket is open. You may wish to say a silent prayer for, or meditate about, the deceased at this time. In some cases the family may escort you to the casket.

The length of your visit at the wake is a matter of discretion. After visiting with the family and viewing the deceased you can visit with others in attendance. Normally there is a register for visitors to sign.

As with other aspects of modern day society funeral dress codes have relaxed somewhat. Black dress is no longer required. Instead subdued or darker hues should be selected, the more conservative the better. After the funeral the family often receives invited visitors to their home for pleasant conversation and refreshments.

You can send flowers to the funeral home prior to the funeral, or to the family residence at any time. In some cases flowers may also be sent to Protestant churches. (Flowers generally are not sent to Jewish synagogues and Catholic churches.) Florists know what is appropriate to send in the funeral context.

Gifts in memory of the deceased are often made, particularly when the family has requested gifts in lieu of flowers. The family is notified of the gifts by personal note from the donor or through the donee, if the donee is a charity or other organization. In the latter case the donor provides the family's name and address to the charity at the time the gift is made.

Even if you don't make a gift, a note or card to the deceased's family expressing your thoughts of the deceased is a welcome gesture, especially if you weren't able to attend the funeral.

The Jewish Funeral

by David Jacobson, Chicago Jewish Funerals Ltd., Buffalo Grove, Illinois

The Jewish faith has many meaningful traditions that help mourners and survivors when a death occurs. According to Rabbi Maurice Lamm:

The ache of the heart will not suddenly disappear; there will be no miraculous consolation. But Judaism does teach the aching heart how to express its pain in love and in respect, and how to achieve the eventual consolation which will restore us to harmony and to keep us from vindictiveness and self pity.

When death occurs the family's clergy and local Jewish funeral director should be contacted. If the family does not have a clergy affiliation, the funeral director can help find appropriate clergy to fulfill the family's needs.

The traditional Jewish funeral service is held at the Kever (grave), a chapel or a synagogue. The funeral should commence as soon as possible. At the conclusion of the service Kaddish is recited by the family members. Kaddish is a prayer for the deceased. Other mourners are obliged to say Kaddish for thirty days. The children of family members recite Kaddish for the parents at every religious service for eleven months.

Other traditional elements include refrigeration of the body (instead of embalming), Tahara (a ritual washing by persons of the same gender as the deceased), followed by dressing the body in a Tachrichim (an all white hand sewn shroud, preferably linen), and the use of an Aron (an all wood casket made without metal in its construction or ornamentation). A Mogen David (Hebrew for Star of David) is usually placed on top of the casket.

A Shomer is the person who sits with the body until burial. On the day of Kevurah (burial) Shivah begins. This is a seven-day period of mourning. On the seventh day Shivah ends after an hour of mourning. Friends visit the family during Shivah except during the Sabbath (from sundown on Friday to Saturday night).

After burial the grave is not visited during Shloshim (a thirty-day period of mourning). After Shloshim the grave marker or stone can be dedicated.

These traditions are not reserved only for the Jewish community - they are available for anyone who wishes to follow the sacred and historical traditions.

On the other hand, people should not feel they have to precisely follow all the traditional elements of a Jewish funeral. The Jewish Funeral director offers a wide range of options, from traditional to modern, and religious to secular, to suit the individual preferences and needs of the family.

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