Reformed Jewish Burial Customs

by Jason Cristiano Ramon, studioD

Burial customs within Judaism differs from sect to sect. For Reform Jews, funerary customs reflect both traditional burial customs, as well as departing from such customs. For example, although ritual washing -- referred to as "tahara" (or "taharah") in Judaism -- is a mandatory custom within Orthodox Judaism, it remains an option within Reform Judaism. Burial practices also often differ within the Reform Jewish community itself.

Chevra Kaddisha

Chevra Kaddisha is a holy burial society within Judaism, and although Reform Jews do not have to contact the local chevra kaddisha, it remains an important option for the community. The chevra kaddisha is made up of practicing Jews who help families prepare the deceased's body for burial. This includes properly washing the body, referred to as "tahara." As members of this burial society wash the deceased's body -- men prepare deceased men's bodies, while women prepare deceased women's bodies -- they also recite prayers for the dead. After this ritual washing, the deceased's body is dressed in traditional burial clothing, usually simple white garments. Unless required by law and in accordance with tradition, the deceased's body is not embalmed.

Type of Casket

Traditionally, Jews have buried their dead in simple, wooden caskets, which are referred to as "kosher" or proper caskets. As most Reform Jews believe that physical bodies "returns to the ground it came from" (Ecclesiastes 12:7), many prefer to bury their loved ones in kosher caskets, as they are biodegradable. However, some Reform Jews have also buried the deceased in metal caskets. Typically, caskets are not opened during the funeral service.

Funeral Service

Prior to the funeral service, direct family members gather together with the funeral's officiant -- usually a rabbi -- in order to perform the "keriah" or the tearing of a garment or ribbon. The tearing of the garment or ribbon symbolizes the family's grief. After the funeral service, which incorporates prayers and a eulogy, the family leaves to prepare for the funeral procession. The casket is removed by the pall bearers; the congregation then follows and proceeds to the gravesite.

Burial Service

The burial service, which takes place by the graveside, is traditionally brief. Although in the past, Reform Jews used to leave the gravesite before the casket was lowered into the earth, today attendees stay while the casket is being lowered. Prayers may be recited before or during the lowering of the casket. The Kaddish is also recited, which is a prayer praising God. Earth is then placed over the casket and onto the gravesite; soil can be sprinkled onto the casket or a shovel can be used.

Cremation

Although it is much more common for Reform Jews to bury their loved ones -- many Jews see the cremation of the body as desecration and associate it with the Holocaust -- some Reform Jews also choose to cremate their loved ones. Within Reform Judaism, although cremation is typically discouraged, as practice, it varies from community to community. As Reform Jews do not believe in the resurrection of the body, some Reform rabbis do not believe that cremation of the physical body is a form of desecration.

About the Author

Jason Cristiano Ramon holds a doctorate in political science and a master's degree in philosophy. He has taught political science in China.

Photo Credits

  • Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images