Jews have very particular traditions regarding death and mourning. I'm not religious at all, but the structure that the Jewish law gives at times like this is incredibly comforting.
I'm fascinated by other people's customs when it comes to grieving. I have only been to a couple of non-Jewish funerals and found them to be very different to my own experience.
When a Jewish person dies, they are transported almost immediately to the Chevra Kaddisha, which is a central funeral home. All Jews use the Chevra Kaddisha. There is no need to pre-plan a funeral or find a funeral director because there is no alternative. All Jews are buried in the same way.
From the time the person dies, they are never left alone. A special volunteer known as a 'shomerim' (guard) stays with the body until it is buried. The body is cleaned in a special way, wrapped in a sheet, and placed in a plain coffin. This is because there is no distinction between rich and poor; everyone is equal in death.
Jewish people are buried very quickly, usually the next day. I find that this can be a bit sudden - there's not much time for people to arrange to come from interstate or overseas, and in an unexpected death mourners can still be in shock. However, the formal period of mourning ('Shiva') doesn't start until after the funeral, so in a sense the grieving doesn't even begin until after their loved one has been buried.
After the funeral family and friends generally congregate at the home of the principal mourner. That evening, and sometimes for several evenings, a 'Minyan' is held at the mourner's home. The rabbi attends and says a few prayers, a short eulogy may be delivered, and friends gather to pay their respects.
You can never offend anyone in mourning by saying the 'wrong thing'. However, if you are ever invited to a Jewish funeral, here are some guidelines:
- You don't send flowers to a Jewish funeral. We are Jews. You bring food to the mourner's house.
- When expressing your condolences, the traditional expression is to wish the mourner long life. "I wish you long life," you say. It is a reminder that life goes on, and that there will still be joy ahead for them in the future.
- People generally do not drink at Minyans. We are Jews. We eat.
- It is traditional to cover mirrors during a period of mourning, so don't pull the sheets down.
- The mourners traditionally sit in low chairs. Don't offer them a pillow.
- You don't have to be Jewish to come to a Jewish funeral. You are welcome and wanted. Especially if you bring a plate.