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Jewish Cemetery, Burial and Mourning Customs

"Kriah" or Rending a Garment in Grief

The ancient practice of tearing clothes is a tangible expression of grief and anger in the face of death.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Mourner's Handbook (Behrman House), by an editorial committee chaired by Rabbi William Cutter.

Kriah is a Hebrew word meaning "tearing." It refers to the act of tearing one's clothes or cutting a black ribbon worn on one's clothes. This rending is a striking expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one.

Kriah is an ancient tradition. When our patriarch Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead, he tore his garments (Genesis 37:34). Likewise, in II Samuel 1:11 we are told that King David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and rent them upon hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan. Job, too, in grieving for his children, stood up and rent his clothes (Job 1:20).

The child, parent, spouse, and sibling of the deceased perform the act of Kriah. It is usually done at the funeral home before the funeral service begins. If a black ribbon is used, the funeral director provides it. Kriah is always performed standing. The act of standing shows strength at a time of grief. A cut is made on the left side of the clothing for parents—over the heart—and on the right side for all other relatives. Sometimes people choose to express deep feelings of grief by cutting on the left side for relatives other than their parents.

As the tear or cut is made, the family recites the following blessing:

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha'olam dayan ha'emet.

Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, Ruler of the Universe, the True Judge.

The torn garment or ribbon is worn during the seven days of Shiva (but not on Shabbat and festival days). Some people continue the practice for the 30-day period of mourning (Sheloshim).

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Mourner's Handbook (Behrman House), by an editorial committee chaired by Rabbi William Cutter.


The Meaningful Tradition of Unveiling a Monument

The custom of placing a monument over the grave of a departed person is a very ancient Jewish tradition. The Book of Genesis, for example, records that Jacob erected a tombstone (Matzevah) over the grave of his wife Rachel. From Biblical times onward, wherever Jewish communities have existed, Jews have continued this practice of erecting a memorial in honor of their deceased.

The monument is erected to indicate clearly where a person is buried, so that family and friends may visit the gravesite. It is also a way of remembering and honoring the memory of the person who has died.

Today, we refer to the ceremony of formally consecrating a tombstone as an “unveiling”. While this ceremony has no origin in pre-modern Jewish life, this has become an acceptable practice today.

An unveiling takes place during the first year after death. There are no strict guidelines for the timing of an unveiling, and, while families may choose a date at any time after the end of the Shiva, it has become a contemporary practice to schedule this ceremony for some time between the end of Shloshim, the thirty day period of intensive mourning, and the first Yahrzeit, the anniversary of a death.

Psychological Function of the Unveiling

The unveiling is a mourning ritual which serves a very specific function in the healing process of the bereaved. It is not simply a perfunctory ritual, but rather, like the funeral, Shiva, Shloshim and Kaddish, the unveiling provides mourners with the opportunity for emotional and psychological healing.

The physical act of erecting and unveiling a monument allows for the expression of the sad and painful emotions of grief. Family members gather together, often from cities which are miles apart, and continue their mourning as a family, lending each other comfort and support in dealing with their grief.
For individuals who were not able to attend the funeral or Shiva, the unveiling ritual provides yet another opportunity to grieve and to acknowledge one’s loss. Although painful, this realistic experience of grief can, over time, be very healing for mourners.

During the unveiling of a monument, as one sees the name of a beloved family member etched in stone, there is a stark realization of the finality of death. The impact can be quite jarring to some, and yet, at the same time, can provide a further opportunity to accept the reality of the loss. Thus, the unveiling ritual allows mourners to face death and loss realistically, and to affirm a commitment to life and to living.

The unveiling also allows the bereaved family members to honor and to recall the memory of their departed. It is a chance to continue to reflect upon the significance of that person’s life, his or her accomplishments, and the people who were important. In a sense, through the unveiling, the memory of a person’s life is etched permanently into the collective memory of the Jewish community.

The Unveiling Service

The service for the unveiling of a monument is a short and simple one. It consists of the recitation of several Psalms; the actual removal of the veil from the memorial; the recitation of the Malei Rachamim (the Memorial Prayer) and the Kaddish. A Minyan (a gathering of 10 Jewish adults) is required for the recitation of Kaddish; however, if there is no Minyan available, the Kaddish is omitted.

At the unveiling it is certainly appropriate for a family member to choose to speak about the person who has died, or to read a supplemental poem or prayer.

Many choose to appoint an officiating rabbi to conduct the unveiling, however, this is not mandatory. The JCAM office has information on how to conduct an unveiling. Please feel free to contact our office and request and unveiling packet to guide you in this important and meaningful ritual.






Jewish Cemetery Etiquette

Jewish Cemetery Etiquette

The following is an excerpt from Author Maurice Lamm’s highly respected book, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning.

The subject of proper conduct at the cemetery is generally neglected. The consequence of this neglect is, frequently, gross impropriety and a super-abundance of superstition. There are two basic principles that can serve as a guide to correct Jewish etiquette on a cemetery. These are:

Kalut Rosh (“Levity”)

The holiness of the cemetery is equivalent to the holiness of the sanctuary. Our actions within its confines must be consonant with the high degree of this holiness. Also, because the graves in the cemetery are places from which we may derive no benefit at all, we are restricted from lounging in the area. Kalut rosh is a spirit of levity and undignified behavior. Under the category of the prohibition of kalut rosh, the following points must be observed, and should be followed not only at the gravesite, but within the boundaries of the entire cemetery.

1. Eating and drinking may not take place on the cemetery. This holds true for unveilings as well! The frequent, but unfortunate, frivolity that marks such occasions should certainly be discouraged. It is a violation of every code of honor.

2. Dress should be proper to the occasion and the place. One should not dress to impress relatives who attend. When one visits the cemetery or the grave of a deceased, it is certainly not the time for scant or frivolous-looking dress, athletic attire, or work clothes.

3. One may not step over or sit on the gravestone that directly covers a grave. One may, however, sit on seats near the graves or on roadside railings and gates.

4. Flowers that, perchance, have blossomed on the grave itself may not be picked for use at home. Naturally, trimming the grave is permissible and commendable.

Lo’eg Larash (“Slighting of the Dead”)

As noted previously, indulging in pleasurable activities, even religious observances, that the deceased or any of the other occupants of the graves once enjoyed participating in, but now cannot, represents a “slighting of the dead.” Thus:

1. One should not study Torah, or recite the Psalms, or conduct formal, daily services within approximately six feet of a grave.

2. One should not carry tefillin or a Torah with him into the cemetery.

Memorial Gifts

Those who wish to honor the dead, or their survivors, may do so in a genuinely religious spirit. They may bring a token of their esteem with them during shiva or send it through the mails.It is not in keeping with the traditional spirit for this memorial gift to be flowers or fruits. It is more significant and more useful to contribute a sacred article for synagogue or school use. This might include Bibles, prayer books, scholarly works, Torahs and Torah ornaments, etc. These will usually be acknowledged by the synagogue or school immediately so that the mourners will be notified of the gift during shiva. Donating to charities at the time of the funeral is an ancient Jewish custom. The custom has three roots in our tradition:

  • The biblical verse, “Charity saves one from death,” is meant to be taken not only literally, but in the spiritual sense, that one who is evil is not considered to be truly alive. Charity saves from “spiritual death.” The association of charity and death here is a direct one.
  • Charity symbolizes the unity of all Israel. Contributions of time and effort and substance for the good of the community are expressions of unity. At the funeral it symbolizes the anguish felt in common by all Jews for the family of the deceased.
  • The mystical tradition, embodied in the Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, says that because of charity will the dead be resurrected in the world to come.

It is in the spirit of dignity, and in keeping with Jewish tradition, to make such contributions as memorials to the dead, rather than to bring outright gifts to the mourners. Naturally, if the deceased felt close to a specific charity, such as a medical research program, it might be wise to contribute to that fund. The memorial gift may be selected by the giver or left to the discretion of the mourners.


The Stones Left Behind….

When I visit the graves of my parents and grandparents, I always make sure to leave a small stone–a kind of “calling card” that I was there, remembering.  As a matter of fact, during the traditional cemetery visitation period, prior to the High Holidays, I went to visit the graves of my great-grandparents resting at the American-Austrian Jewish Cemetery in Woburn. I had never been to their graves before and I’m certain no one has been there to say Kaddish in well over 40 years.

As I approached their graves, I felt a deep connection, especially to my great grandmother whom I’m named for.  Having never met them, I only have the stories my mother told me about Hannah and Abram from Austria.

Hannah was orphaned as a small child; living with her mother’s sister who used her as a “scullery maid” in the boarding house she ran. It’s no wonder she married at the age of 16 to Abram, a grocer, so she could escape her living conditions. They lived in Cambridge and they had 13 children! My grandmother, Tillie, was the first born daughter. My grandmother told me that Hannah would say, “See, I’ve given  you lots of brothers and sisters, so you’ll never be alone…”

As I stood there at their gravesite it was clear to me that I needed to introduce myself. I spoke to the beautifully carved monuments, reflective of a life once lived. It was as if I was speaking directly to my great-grandparents. I told them who I was, whose child I was, and how much I knew about them.

I stood there alone on a windy autumn day reciting the ancient words of the Kaddish for two people I had never met, but felt I knew. (I know we’re supposed to have a minyan to recite the Kaddish, but I did it anyway!) It was a wonderful, uplifting moment for me. I felt I did a great mitzvah to their memory. I plan to go back and visit again next year, but this time with my own daughter to introduce her to her ancestors, so she can leave a stone too.

The Origins of Leaving A Visitation Stone

One of the most common Jewish cemetery customs is to leave a small stone at the grave of a loved one after saying Kaddish or visiting.  Its origins are rooted in ancient times and throughout the centuries the tradition of leaving a visitation stone has become part of the act of remembrance.

The origin of this custom began long ago, when the deceased was not placed in a casket, but rather the body was prepared, washed, and wrapped in a burial shroud, or for a male, in his tallis (prayer shawl). Then the body would be placed in the ground, covered with dirt and then large stones would be placed atop the gravesite, preventing wild animals from digging up the remains.

Over time, individuals would go back to the gravesite and continue to place stones, ensuring the security of the site and as a way to build up the “memory” of the loved one.

As time passed on, and carved monuments became the preferred memorial, the custom of leaving a visitation stone became a symbolic gesture–a way for the visitor to say to the  loved one, “I remember you…..”.

JCAM provides for this custom on our cemeteries by filling receptacles with small stones for our visitors to leave, so you too, can continue on with this ancient custom of remembering.