The Jewish funeral consists of burial, also known as interment. Cremation is not considered a viable possibility. Burial is considered to allow the body to decompose naturally. Burial is intended to take place in as short an interval of time after death as possible. Jewish law forbids embalming. Displaying of the body prior to burial does not take place.
In Israel the Jewish funeral service will usually commence at the burial ground. In the United States and Canada, the funeral service will either commence at a funeral home or at the cemetery. Occasionally the service will commence at a synagogue. In the case of a very prominent individual the funeral service can begin at a synagogue or a yeshivah. If the funeral service begins at a point other than at the cemetery the entourage accompanies the body in a procession to the cemetery. The funeral itself, the procession, the burial, are referred to by the word levayah, meaning “accompanying.”
Levayah means “accompaniment” because the funeral procession involves accompanying the body to the place of burial. Levayah is Hebrew and it also indicates “joining” and “bonding.” This aspect of the meaning of the word levayah conveys the implication of a commonality between the “souls” of the living and the dead.
A hesped is a eulogy, and it is common that several people speak at the start of the ceremony at the funeral home, as well as prior to burial at the gravesite, though some people specify in their wills that nothing should be said about them. On certain days, such as on Chol HaMo’ed (“intermediate days” of Jewish holidays), eulogies are forbidden.
Kevura, or burial, should take place as soon as possible after death. The Torah requires burial as soon as possible, even for executed criminals. This means that burial will usually take place on the same day as death, or, if not possible, the next day. Some Reform and other congregations delay burial to allow more time for far-flung family to come to the funeral and participate in the other post-burial rituals.
The traditional practice may have originated from the fact that Israel was, and is, a country with a hot climate. In Biblical times, there were few ways of keeping the dead body from decomposing. Not only would this be generally undesirable, but allowing the dead body of any person to decompose would be showing that person great disrespect. Decomposition would have occurred especially quickly in Israel due to the constant heat. Thus, the custom of burying the body as soon as possible. (Although the practice of embalming and mummification had advanced to a high level in Egypt, this, too, is considered disrespectful, since it involves a great deal of manipulation and the removal of bodily organs.) In addition, respect for the dead can be seen from many examples in the Torah and Tanakh. For example, one of the last events in the Torah is the death of Moses when God himself buries him: “[God] buried him in the depression in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor. No man knows the place that he was buried, even to this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6)
When the funeral service has ended, the mourners come forward to fill the grave. Symbolically, this gives the mourners closure as they observe the grave being filled in. One custom is for people present at the funeral to take a spade or shovel, held pointing down instead of up, to show the antithesis of death to life and that this use of the shovel is different from all other uses, to throw three shovelfuls of dirt into the grave. When someone is finished, they put the shovel back in the ground, rather than handing it to the next person, to avoid passing along their grief to other mourners. This literal participation in the burial is considered a particularly good mitzvah because it is one for which the beneficiary – the deceased – can offer no repayment or gratitude and thus it is a pure gesture.