Jewish Funeral Customs
October 29, 2006 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Questions about Jewish funeral customs. My husband's grandmother sadly passed away this weekend and I was hoping for some advice. She was Jewish, I'm not. I have a load of questions inside...

First of all, I'm going to be charged with looking after my mother-in-law during the service, who is clearly devastated at the loss of her mother. Could somebody talk me through the ins and outs of the service - where to go, what to say, when to stand/sit/kneel - so that I can try to be a help rather than a hinderance to her?

Secondly, I'll be doing the catering for a gathering afterwards. Whilst the in-laws don't keep kosher, I imagine a fair number of the other guests will. I need to lay on a buffet for around 50 people - what can I (or, more importantly, what can't I) provide?

Thirdly, is there anything else I need to know so I don't put my foot in it or accidentally offend anyone?
posted by dogsbody to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The rabbi will say "please rise" when you're required to stand. Just follow what everyone else is doing-- I'm Jewish but on the rare occasions I go to Catholic mass I just follow the crowd, save for kneeling. There isn't any kneeling, really, for us. So don't worry about that part, it's easy to follow. There is one point where people might be bobbing up and down-- don't feel like you have to do this.

Just sit next to her and hold her hand. Maybe hold the prayerbook for her and turn the pages. I doubt she'll be paying close attention, and if it were me I'd just be happy to have you there. Follow her lead, she'll probably be seated in the first pew, maybe by an usher of sorts.

As for the food, maybe go with a dairy spread-- things like bagels, lox, smoked whitefish, herring, blintzes, crudites-- are pretty safe. Danish, coffee, non-dairy creamer. We're not strictly kosher but a lot of our family are, so we put out the fake creamer in the container so the kosher folk know, well, it's kosher.

You don't specify if she is Sephardic or Ashkenazi, which would make some difference in the food choices, but I am betting she is the latter, hence the suggestions I made. If you're in a city, maybe there's a kosher deli that could make up some platters?

Avoid shellfish, and mixing milk and meat. Like, cheeseburgers would be unfortunate.

I am sorry for your loss. This is a mitzvah, what you are doing.
posted by astruc at 5:30 PM on October 29, 2006

I don't mean this to be snarky or anything, but wouldn't your husband at least know some of this?
posted by dhammond at 5:34 PM on October 29, 2006

As for the food, call a Jewish deli and ask them what they suggest. Popular Jewish delis cater things like this ALL the time.

Also - people often send food to the house of mourning, so your food may not be the only thing there.
posted by kdern at 5:36 PM on October 29, 2006

As a Jew who has been to a fair share of funerals, the first thing I will say is that you will be a great help and comfort to the family simply by being there. As with any time of grief, stick to the background and offer support when necessary but allow the family to grieve together. Most Jewish funeral homes have coordinators that will walk you through everything before and during the funeral. Funeral homes know that this is a tough and confusing time and they take special steps to guide you through it. As far as the service goes, it is fairly simple. The Rabbi and a few friends will offer some prayers and perhaps a eulogy. The orator will tell you when to stand, when to sit, when to pray, and when to be silent. Having been to (too many) funerals in the past, I can tell you firsthand that the funeral itself, logistically speaking, is the easiest thing to handle.

As for the gathering afterwards, I would stick to deli trays as a source of food. It is a food most people eat, and most delis will cater to Kosher dietary restrictions (depending on your locale and if it is a "Jewish" neighborhood). The big thing with being kosher is not mixing meat and dairy and no pork (ham, pork, etc.). Just keep cheeses on a separate tray from meats, and keep any ham or pork on a third separate tray. Also, try and have some regular salads or side dishes without mayo or milk products so they can be enjoyed by those individuals having meat.

As for more specifics or ideas, I'll be happy to elaborate if you would like. My e-mail is in my profile. Best of luck!
posted by galimatias at 5:38 PM on October 29, 2006

Afterthoughts: Oh, and you might be asked to cover your head. Sometimes you're given a bit of lace to pin to your head. You can do this or not as you feel comfortable, but it would be a nice gesture. You might also be asked to shovel or throw some dirt into the grave. That I would definitely do-- if you were going to only pick one thing, that would be the one.
posted by astruc at 5:38 PM on October 29, 2006

Yes, I forgot to add that many people will want to send food to the house of morning (Shiva House). This is a typical custom. In my experience with Shiva houses, friends and distant family have usually taken care of most to all of the catering needs so the family is not bothered by it. Keep track of who sends what, as you'll want to send thank-you notes later on.
posted by galimatias at 5:41 PM on October 29, 2006

i'm not sure at what point this would be appropriate, but i know that it's customary to cover all the mirrors in the house for a certain number of days.

my daughter died last summer, and when a jewish friend of mine came to visit me during the first week, i of course looked a complete wreck, and apologized to him for how awful i looked. he told me not to even think of it, and that in jewish homes, all the mirrors are covered during mourning, so nobody has to worry about how they look.

i thought that it was sweet of him to say that, and that the tradition was so thoughtful towards those in grief. i'm sure someone else can provide the details on this.
posted by doplgangr at 6:18 PM on October 29, 2006

The above advice is all good, but I wanted to add that in most jewish families (including mine, which is not at all religious), keeping milk and meat on separate plates isn't the issue. The issue is to not have them at the same meal at all. (Which is pretty easy, given that fish doesn't count as 'meat', and given that any jewish restaurant or deli should be able to tell you what to serve.)

On another note: my family still keeps to those kosher traditions, but we modernize it a bit. Frequently, the creamcheese/bagels/smoked fish gets replaced by veggie lasagna/salad/bread. It still follows the 'don't mix milk and meat' rule, but mirrors more the way we normally eat on a day to day basis.

And you should know that the 'after the funeral' part, as well as the five days that follow when the family stays home and people come to visit and pray, is called the 'shiva'.

As for the ceremony itself, just stand when the rabbi tells everyone to stand, and sit when he says 'please be seated'. There's no kneeling in jewish services. The 'bobbing back and forth' mentioned above is called 'dovening'; don't do it. Its part of a very respectful form of prayer, and it would be a bit insulting to do the motions without knowing why. (Or if not insulting, you might just look a little naive.) Besides, it usually only the men who doven.

Doplgangr's mention of the mirror-covering was good, if your husbands family is conservative or orthodox then you'll want to consider covering the mirrors in your home.
Also keep in mind that, hopefully, no one goes to funerals that regularly; you'll be one of many who are just 'following along with the crowd'.

Also: ask your husband! He should know what his family normally does in cases like this!
posted by Kololo at 6:35 PM on October 29, 2006

I'm sorry for your loss.

Jew FAQ is a great go-to source for questions like this. Their section on mourning has some details you might find helpful. Note especially covering the mirrors and providing people with low stools (crates or boxes are often used as well) to sit on in the shiva house.

I second the note about avoiding meat and milk in the same meal. Also, if there will be people who keep kosher coming, they won't be able to eat food that's been prepared in a non-kosher kitchen, even if the food itself is kosher. Your best bet will be, as others have suggested, to get something from a kosher deli or caterer.

I believe there's a tradition about sitting on boxes
posted by chickletworks at 6:45 PM on October 29, 2006

Thank you all for your very helpful answers.

I think what has surprised me most about the whole thing is how fast everything is moving. This is the main reason I'm asking here, I guess. The family are so busy doing so many things, I didn't want to be annoying them with questions about standing/sitting (and, now I know, not kneeling!) when they've got so much else on their plate.

Also, although I appreciate that it might be a bit easier to just phone up a deli, I'd like to at try to make some kind of effort with the food myself, so at least I feel as though I'm making some kind of useful contribution. Any more suggestions in this area would be greatly appreciated (before I head out to the shops tomorrow morning).

As a (possibly OT) addendum, I've noticed several of my cookbooks mention kosher salt (the mineral). Does this mean that ordinary sea salt isn't allowed? Or is that just for the super-orthodox?
posted by dogsbody at 7:03 PM on October 29, 2006

You may find that you're unable to be with your mother-in-law all of the time. The 'official' mourners (parents, siblings and children of the deceased) sit separately, on low stools or chairs during the funeral service (but not the burial) and during the evening prayer service(s)/gathering.

People will wish the mourners (and possibly you as well) 'a long life' which is traditional (and it probably wouldn't be amiss for you to wish others the same).
posted by prettypretty at 7:06 PM on October 29, 2006

Does this mean that ordinary sea salt isn't allowed? Or is that just for the super-orthodox?

Kosher salt is used in the process of kashering meat. Regular salt-- provided it has a hecksher*-- is fine.

*A hecksher is the symbol that tells you that product is kosher. The most common one is the OU symbol, but others include a K inside a triangle or circle. It's usually on the package near the product's name.
posted by chickletworks at 7:10 PM on October 29, 2006

Again, sorry--

I'd like to at try to make some kind of effort with the food myself, so at least I feel as though I'm making some kind of useful contribution.

That's really nice of you and I definitely understand the sentiment. But I just want to reiterate that people who keep kosher won't be able to eat anything prepared in your non-kosher kitchen. Even slicing something inherently kosher, like an apple, with a knife that's been used to cut both meat and cheese will render that apple treyf, or unkosher. (This also means that people who keep kosher can't use your glasses, plates and utensils-- be sure to have plastic ones!) Honestly, it will be a much more respectful and, I'd imagine, appreciated gesture to provide completely kosher food.
posted by chickletworks at 7:17 PM on October 29, 2006

Part of why it's all moving fast is that it's required to be - Jews traditionally don't embalm, and are required to bury the body as soon as possible. There's no formal viewing or anything like that, but traditionally the body is not left alone between death and burial. I am always surprised, conversely, by how long some other faiths wait before burial.

Overall, Jewish mourning customs are designed to move the family through a process of grief - a seven day period where you literally do nothing else [thus no mirrors, men don't shave, etc], then a thirty day period with some reentry into the world, but no celebratory activity, etc. and then an eleven month period where mourner recite the kaddish prayer and grieve in more subtle ways.

You are doing a very good thing by trying to find out what you can in this difficult time. When you have more time, you might read Maurice Lamm's book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, which is very comprehensive.
posted by judith at 7:32 PM on October 29, 2006

About the food: really observant people will not eat stuff off your crockery, or any crockery that isn't new or disposable, since such crockery (and cutlery, and drinking vessels, etc) may have had both dairy and meat in them, and thus render any food they touch unkosher. Such people likewise will probably not eat prepared food whose provenance can't be easily verified: this includes stuff from a deli, unless the proprietor is known to them. On the upside, they are used to other people fumbling this stuff so don't stress too much or go to huge effort - you weren't raised to keep a kosher house and can't possibly get it all right. If you want to make sure they don't starve, you can't go wrong with fruit or with packaged kosher food (ie with a hechsher on it) on new disposable plates, and kosher drinks with hechsher in new disposable cups. Your observant guests will need somewhere to wash their hands as well.

In other words, accept that any very observant people will not be well-served by what you can do, but they will not be expecting more of you.

It is customary for the immediate family to symbolically rend their clothing (in my neck of the woods the rabbi cuts your shirt/top with a pair of scissors) and to not change said clothing until the mourning period is over. Or to shave. So don't be freaked out by more devout people's appearance over the next few days.

Condolences to you and your family.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:47 PM on October 29, 2006

In terms of food, you'll want to figure out just how much your guests will keep Kosher. As i_am_joe's_spleen points out, observant Jews will not eat food that has not been prepared in a Kosher kitchen and served on Kosher plates and platters. Others may expect Kosher-certified food, but not care about the plates and platters, others will be fine as long as you're not mixing meat and dairy, and many just won't care at all. If you will have observant guests who keep Kosher, a Kosher deli is really the best route. If you just tell them you need a spread for after a funeral, they can get everything ready for you. It's a very kind gesture of you to want to provide food, but really, after the funeral, no one is going to know or care where the food comes from. I'd focus instead on some nice food for the family in the days to come, when Kashruit isn't an issue.

You'll want to find out if the family is sitting shivah--the seven day mourning period immediately following the funeral. If so, it is customary for the immediate family members (parents, siblings, children) to sit on low chairs and not engage in normal activities of daily life. In reality, people will do whatever suits them and their needs, and most do not sit the entire seven day period. During this time, you'll want to provide for the family as much as possible, in terms of providing food and helping them with household tasks.

As Asturc mentioned, it is customary to help shovel dirt into the grave at the end of the service. In many Jewish funerals, the mourners fill the grave completely themselves. It is considered a great honor to be able to do this for someone, because it is a favor they will never be able to repay. You may need to assist your mother in law in getting to the pile of dirt and shovels that will be set out for you, and you'll want to shovel some dirt yourself. Usually, everyone does one or two shovelfulls with the shovel turned backwards, and then able-bodied guests will continue, trading off as people desire. Just follow the crowd.

My condolences to you and your family on your loss.
posted by zachlipton at 9:22 PM on October 29, 2006

If the food is an issue, do yourself a favor and let somebody else handle it while you deal with more important issues. Call a kosher deli or a jewish caterer. They know how to handle these situations, and can usually even provide kosher utensils and plates and give the best advice.
posted by zaelic at 1:46 AM on October 30, 2006

i won't comment on dietary restrictions, as it seems most people gave okay advice.

mourning jews don't do the 'wear all black thing', so try not to show-up in all stark black. i mean, if you have a black suit, go for it, but don't go overboard with the black.

also, jews dont do flowers when someone dies. so for the love of jewish god, don't bring flowers for condolences.

don't look like you put too much into your appearance (i.e.: no red lipstick or much make-up), as most basic shiva requires coving mirrors, and you're not supposed to focus on somatic things at all.

at the service, makes sure you are properly covered: no bare shoulders, knees, etc. we don't do 'kneeling' at all. the 'bobbing' someone clumsily mentioned up-thread is called 'davening' (which really means 'praying', but we've come to associate it with movement). you don't have to daven, but you need to stand when everyone else is standing, and sit when everyone else is sitting.

at the funeral, it is tradition to place a rock or stone over the burial site (and then on the grave once the stone is erected a year later), so it would be a nice thing for you to do. so you might want to keep a few stones in your purse just in case the cemetary doesn't have any on the ground.

also, why don't you just speak to the rabbi who is head of the shul?
posted by naxosaxur at 3:22 AM on October 30, 2006

I don't think you need to worry about the pure-kosher thing, as if it was a real issue you wouldn't be hosting the shiva at your non-kosher house. My family has always paid little-to-no attention to dietary laws, and it sounds like your family is that way too. Pay closer attention to the meat-milk thing and the no-pork than anything else-- people won't be expecting anything to be actual-kosher but would be very surprised if you served cheeseburger mac. :)

If you are going to be cooking, make a couple of kugels, which are basically traditional Jewish casseroles. Easy to prep and everyone will recognize the effort.
posted by miss tea at 4:13 AM on October 30, 2006

Lots of baked goods are traditional. And when people come over while you're sitting shiva there will be plenty of gossip and general chatter, it won't be nonstop condolences and mournful looks (well, depending on your husband's family, of course, but I'm going by what I've seen). Good for you for working so hard at this. You're a mensch.
posted by languagehat at 6:03 AM on October 30, 2006

If you're having the shiva at your house, be sure to put a pitcher of water and some towels outside the front door for mourners to wash their hands before entering.
posted by gokart4xmas at 6:29 AM on October 30, 2006

My family is Jewish, and in all the funerals I can think of, in all branches of the family, there has been some kind of pork product on the table in this situation. It's nice of you to take this so seriously, but your decision is going to ultimately be arbitrary unless you actually ask someone who knows the family better.
posted by bingo at 8:19 AM on October 30, 2006

I'd just like to say thanks to everyone for your incredibly helpful advice. As an outsider, it's all been a bit bewildering but at least I feel more prepared for tomorrow. Thank you all for all the information and sharing your experiences.

Just as a minor update, I had a chat with the in-laws this morning and clarified the whole food situation and, as miss tea had already suggested, they weren't expecting full-on kosher, just a dairy/fish spread. Have kept over some uncut fruit & veg, paper plates and plastic cutlery just in case, though.

Thank you all, once again.

posted by dogsbody at 5:41 PM on October 30, 2006

I second the comment about having a pitcher or two of water, and towels, placed on a small table outside your front door. Jews are required to wash their hands after leaving a Jewish cemetary and before going home (or to someone else's home). Some cemeteries have a spigot outside the gates, but some don't.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:41 PM on October 30, 2006

I know, it's a year later—but thank you so much for this thread. I hadn't searched AskMe 'cause I'd searched for Jewish stuff on here before and hadn't found a whole lot. But when I was Googling just now, it came up as one of the results. Thank God.

(From a not-really-Jewish girlfriend whose Jewish boyfriend's grandmother sadly just passed away.)
posted by limeonaire at 9:14 PM on October 2, 2007

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