Conservative Jews, like others believe that funerals are a sacred rite deserving of dignity, and Jewish funeral traditions are marked by their simplicity. All people are deserving of dignity and respect, and the body retains its sanctity even after death. Conservative Judaism speaks about resurrection, but is not specific about the form it takes. It could be in a spiritual sense through remembrance by those still on earth, or in a physical sense following the appearance of the Messiah.
Conservative Jewish funeral and mourning practices carry great religious significance. Because of this, funerals are not elaborate or showy. Family members and visitors mark the solemnity of this lifecycle event by their dress. In addition, flowers and music are inappropriate at funerals. Embalming and viewing of the body are not practiced, and burial should be conducted as soon as possible after a person’s death.
A holy society, called a Hevra Kadisha usually oversees funerals in Conservative Jewish communities. This group is made up of volunteers who help the mourning family by ensuring that Jewish practices are observed. Sometimes this is done by the Jewish funeral home or a Jewish cemetery society.
The preparation and interment of the body are highly valued commandments. Because these acts of kindness cannot be repaid by the dead, they are considered to be carried out without any ulterior motives. When a member of a Jewish community passes, the Jewish community is responsible for assisting the family with this act.
There are several Jewish laws that must be observed when someone dies. First, Jewish law requires that interment take place as quickly as possible after death. While there are some reasons why burial could be delayed— legal issues, transportation of the body, or relatives who must travel from long distances, or to avoid burial on Shabbat or holy days— it is preferred that the body by buried within 24 hours of death.
Jewish laws require that embalming fluids and cosmetics not be used on the deceased. Embalming is never permitted unless civil law requires it. Cremation is also contrary to Jewish tradition. Caskets must be made entirely of wood to hasten the body’s process of returning to the earth, and services are usually held in a synagogue, funeral home, or they are held at the site of the grave. Services are simple and usually very short. Public and private viewings of the deceased’s body are in opposition to Jewish practices.
It is customary and appreciated that a condolence meal be arranged for the mourners. Traditional foods prepared for this meal include round items like eggs, because they are symbolic of the Jewish lifecycle. The meal is traditionally serviced to the mourners at the house of morning after they return from the cemetery burial.
Friends and acquaintances of the deceased can express their sympathy by making a memorial contribution to a Tzedakah fund of significant importance to the deceased or the family. Condolence calls should be made by visitors during shivah, the seven-day mourning period that takes place following burial. However, condolence calls should not be made on Shabbat.
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