Funeral and Bereavement Guide

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil for Thou art with me” (Psalm 23)


If there is a lifecycle emergency, contact Rabbi Harris first: 301-652-2606, ext. 105. If he does not pick up, contact the synagogue office: 301-652-2606.

After office hours, call the following numbers in this sequence until you have reached one of these synagogue officers who can provide the information you need immediately:

  • Rabbi Harris: (301) 928-7288
  • Rabbi Megdal: (240) 781-8689
  • Hazzan Fradkin: (240) 543-0218

What To Do Next

Jewish funeral and mourning practices have developed over centuries.  Many people comment that the guidance offered by Jewish tradition was extremely helpful and provided support during the difficult time of loss.  The rituals for friends and families have been developed to address the feelings of intense grief that the death of a loved one. People are often overcome with feelings of guilt, hurt, loss anger, or listlessness. The Jewish way of mourning lessens the loneliness and isolation of the bereaved and brings the individual into a community of comforters.

The clergy of Beth El work with the Chevra Kadisha to help families through this difficult time. The Chevra Kadisha is a group of men and women dedicated to serving the needs of congregants who experience a death in the family. It provides a Shivah meal and, most importantly, will, on request, perform tahara. (The clergy arrange for minyan leaders, prayer books, and Shivah chairs as needed.) Tahara is the careful and caring preparation of the body of the deceased for burial, in accordance with Jewish custom and law. The traditional view is that each person is holy. Hence, the preparations for burial are done with respect and honor for the deceased.

The work of the Chevra Kadisha constitutes a Chesed Shel Emet, a true act of kindness that is performed without ulterior motive, for the service can never be repaid. There is no charge for these services and no synagogue funds are allocated for them. Donations to Beth El’s Chevra Kadisha Fund allow it to continue its work.

If Beth El’s Chevra Kadisha is not available, we will help make arrangements for tahara with the City Wide Chevra Kadisha.

Beth El’s Chevra Kadisha does not offer Shomrim services.  Shomrim, guardians for the body, sit with the body at the funeral home 24 hours a day until the time of burial.  If you would like this to occur, you can make these arrangements directly with the funeral home you have selected.

Any questions regarding the operations of Beth El’s Chevra Kadisha should be directed to Alan Morrison, Chairman, at 301-229-3696, or to the clergy.  At the time of death, the clergy will contact the Chevra Kadisha.

Beth El members are able to choose any funeral home they prefer. Each of the following funeral homes have been used by our members to their satisfaction. They are listed in alphabetic order. Each provides a similar level of service and array of options, but the costs vary. FTC regulations require full disclosure of funeral rates, so you should ask for a complete and clear accounting of their charges.

  • Danzansky-Goldberg – 301-340-1400
  • Hines-Rinaldi – 301-622-2290
  • Edward Sagel – 301-217-9400
  • Torchinsky – 202-541-1001

Beth El works in partnership with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington.  Beth El members benefit from the JFPCGW negotiated contract with Hines-Rinaldi for providing funeral services at very competitive costs.

Each of these funeral homes performs Jewish burials and proper preparations.  Torchinsky is the only Jewish owned funeral home in the area but does not offer the JFPCGW rates.

Purchasing mortuary services before a loved one dies is possible but not encouraged. This is called a “pre-need” purchase. As opposed to the purchase of cemetery plots, which some people do well before an illness or other decline, mortuary services do not need to be made in advance.  If you value the peace of mind that comes with pre-need arrangements, you can speak with the funeral homes directly.

There are a number of Jewish cemeteries in the Washington area. Some belong to long-standing congregations. Beth El has synagogue sections at different cemeteries but does not own its own cemetery. Feel free to consult with the clergy or Executive Director in deciding where to purchase plots.

It is wise to do this planning and purchase long before the plots will be needed. It relieves the family of a difficult decision if death comes unexpectedly. In addition to the plot itself, it is also necessary to purchase services for the actual interment, the liner and installation, etc. These arrangements are made directly with the cemetery. Purchasing these services pre-need is also possible and done directly with the cemetery.

Five cemeteries are commonly used by Beth El members:

  • Garden of Remembrance, Clarksburg, Maryland.  301-428-3000. This cemetery was opened in 2000 by Washington Hebrew Congregation and has made plots available to the larger community. Beth El has a large section of contiguous plots for purchase by members; all plots allow for either upright headstones or flat grave markers. Arrangements are made through the Beth El office at 301-652-2606.
  • Judean Gardens in Olney, Maryland. 301-384-1000. Beth El has a large section of contiguous plots for purchase by members. Plots in the Beth El section can only have flat grave markers. Arrangements are made through the Beth El office at 301-652-2606.
  • King David Memorial Gardens in Falls Church, Virginia. 703–560-4400. For several decades, there were no real alternatives to King David, despite its distance from Bethesda, and the vast majority of Beth El members at that time purchased gravesites in this cemetery. There is no specific Beth El section here, but the congregation does have a limited number of plots available for sale through the Beth El office at 301-652-2606.
  • Menorah Gardens in Rockville, Maryland.  301-881-2151. Not commonly used by Beth El members but also quite appropriate.  Arrangements can be made directly with their staff.
  • Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in Hyattsville, Maryland. 301-434-4640. This is the closest distance to Beth El but not often used.  All its plots allow for headstones.  Arrangements can be made directly with their staff.

Jewish Mourning Practices

Jewish law requires that burial take place as soon as possible. This is done as a sign of respect for the deceased.  It is also provides great psychological benefit to the family. In today’s world, however, brief delays are often necessary to allow family members to gather. The Sabbath and Jewish holidays may also necessitate delays. The clergy should be consulted in these cases.

The following are considerations that we bring to your attention.

  • Shmirah (watching the body): It is traditional Jewish practice to not leave the deceased alone (unguarded) from the moment of death until burial. Some Beth El congregants follow this practice. It includes the recitation of Psalms while watching the body.
  • Shomrim (guardians):  These may be relatives or personal friends of the deceased or members of the Congregation. There is also an area-wide Shomer service that will provide this service for a fee. Consult with the clergy or Chevra Kaddisha on this matter.
  • Autopsy/Organ Donation:   Autopsy is discouraged, for the sake of honoring the deceased, and should be performed only if required by the authorities.   Jewish law, contrary to popular opinion, permits organ donation under various conditions. The clergy should be consulted for the specifics of these matters.
  • Embalming: Embalming is contrary to Jewish practice and permitted only under unusual circumstances or where required by authorities. The latter is sometimes the case when death takes place out of the country.
  • Tahara (ritual cleansing):  Participation in tahara is a mitzvah of the highest order and is performed by members of the Chevra Kaddisha who are knowledgeable about traditional customs. Cleansing of the body and ritual washing are accompanied by the recitation of prayers. Women perform taharot on women, men on men. Close relatives of the deceased do not perform tahara. Only members of the Chevra Kaddisha are permitted to be in the room during tahara.
  • Tachrichim (burial garments): We are all considered equal before God, whether we were rich or poor in life. Therefore the tradition requires that all Jews be buried in the same type of garment. Burial clothes are simple, handmade white garments, signifying purity, simplicity and dignity. A Jewish male is customarily buried wearing a kippah and a tallit. A Jewish woman may also be buried wearing her tallit if desired.
  • Aron (casket):  This should be made entirely of wood without decoration or lining. A “plain pine box” is the traditional coffin. Of course there are several levels of “plain pine box.” Mourners are encouraged to aim for simplicity and modesty.  Earth from Israel is provided by the Chevra Kaddisha and placed within the coffin.
  • Flowers: These are not part of a Jewish burial. Sometimes they are sent by employers or others who are not aware of our tradition. They can be displayed in the shivah house or given to a nursing home but will not be used at the funeral service.  If someone asks about flowers, you may want to indicate that a contribution to a charitable cause in memory of the deceased is an appropriate and preferred way of expressing sympathy and respect. You may also wish to have available at the shivah some information about charities that were important to the deceased.
  • Cremation: Jewish law does not permitted cremation. If the deceased has insisted on cremation, the clergy will discuss with you the kinds of services that are still possible.

Funeral services may be held in the synagogue, the funeral home, or at the graveside. This is one of the most important decisions to be made after a death takes place and should be made in consultation with family and the clergy.

Other customs and considerations for the day of the burial:

  • Kria (rending the garment): Next of kin participate in kria prior to the funeral service. The garment to be rent (torn) is an item of daily clothing or a ribbon affixed to the clothing. The torn garment or ribbon is worn either seven or thirty days, except on the Sabbath.
  • Pallbearers:  Pallbearers are chosen from among family and friends and accompany the casket and assist at the grave. This is an honor and a personal tribute to the deceased. Some lifting is required.
  • Viewing: Viewing the body is contrary to Jewish tradition’s emphasis on kibbud hamet (honoring the dead).
  • Kaddish: This prayer is recited for the first time after the burial. It should not be said if the family attends synagogue services between the death and burial. Click here for a prayer to read in place of the Mourner’s Kaddish when there is not a minyan present/available.
  • Hand Washing: It is customary for those who go to the cemetery to wash their hands after leaving the cemetery. Some cemeteries provide washing bowls, more often it is necessary for these to be provided at the shiva house.

Shiva (the first seven days according to tradition):  Shiva is the period of intensive mourning observed by the immediate family of the deceased.  Shiva begins on the day of burial, not the day of death. The “official” mourners are: spouse, siblings, parents, and children of the deceased.  Those who have married into a relationship with the deceased are affected by the loss but are not obligated to perform the rituals of mourning.

The mirrors in a Shiva house are traditionally covered, and a seven-day memorial candle is kindled. Mourners sit on lower seats where possible. It is customary to arrange for a meal of condolence (which traditionally includes round foods such as eggs) to be served to the mourners and those who have accompanied and returned home with them from the cemetery. A pitcher of water and hand towels should be placed outside the door of the house for those who went to the cemetery to wash their hands before entering the house.  No blessing is recited.

Mourners are encouraged to participate in morning prayer services at synagogue and hold evening prayers in the Shiva house with the exception of Shabbat. Reciting Kaddish is one of the key parts of these services. Mourners may lead the prayer service in their home or request that the synagogue provide a leader.

While people will be coming to the shiva home, the mourners are not hosting the event.  It is the obligation of the community to support the mourners and thus it is customary to provide the mourners with food and assistance.  Friends and relatives should help supervise the preparation and/or ordering of necessary food and supplies. Beth El provides a platter at a time arranged with the family, either for the meal of condolence or later on in the Shiva period.  Many who come to the Shiva house will bring food with them.

During the Shiva period, mourners are urged to stay away from work or school in order to have time to contemplate the meaning of the cycle of life and the adjustments that will be required of them.

Public mourning observances are suspended on the Sabbath as the sanctity and serenity of this day supersede one’s personal grief. Mourners are encouraged to attend Sabbath services but are not given an Aliyah. Kria (the torn garment) is not displayed publicly. A major Holiday Festival terminates Shiva (consult the clergy for details.)

Shloshim (the first thirty days):  during the thirty days following burial (except during Shiva) mourners may return to work and normal activities but refrain from public entertainment or social activities. They are encouraged to attend services on a regular (daily)  basis and recite Kaddish.  The K’ria is worn by some during shloshim, while others cease doing so at the conclusion of the Shiva.

Shanah (the first year):  mourners for deceased parents continue to attend daily services to recite Kaddish for eleven months and continue to refrain from celebratory activities for a full year.

Yahrzeit (anniversary of death):  the Kaddish is recited each year on the anniversary of the death (not the burial).

Yizkor (memorial prayers): Yizkor prayers are recited on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot.

Prayer books and Guides for Mourning Rituals  

Reflections on saying Kaddish and the Yizkor Service  

Self-care literature  

 Teen Friendly Resources  

Resources for Young Children, Pre-teens and Teens (picture books, all available in the Beth El Library) 

For Older Children (ages 10-13) 

For Teens 12-17 

Podcasts/other Media 

Local support grief groups  

Mourning Resources  

This is a list of resources from the Rabbinical Assembly with many sections including Afterlife, Aging, Children, Civil Law, Cremation, Ethical Wills, Eulogy, Finances, Funeral practices, Grief and Sorry, History, Interfaith, Kaddish, Mourning, Oran Donation, Taharah, Traditional Practices, etc.) 

Resources from the Gamliel Institute 

The Bond of Life: A Book for Mourners, Rabbi Jules Harlow (an Online shiva siddur, followed by many other instructional resources for mourners.) 

The following readings can be used as introductions to the page or otherwise provided for comfort and inspiration for visitors to the bereavement resources website under the heading Short Readings: 

A Prayer of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav (1772-1810):   This link doesn’t work. 

Grant me the ability to be alone;

may it be my custom to go outdoors each day

among the trees and grass – among all growing things

and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,

to talk with the One to whom I belong.

May I express there everything in my heart,

and may all the foliage of the field –

all grasses, trees, and plants –

awake at my coming,

to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer

so that my prayer and speech are made whole

through the life and spirit of all growing things,

which are made as one by their transcendent Source.

May I then pour out the words of my heart

before your Presence like water, O God,

and lift up my hands to You in worship,

on my behalf, and that of my children! 

To everything there is a season, 

And a time to every purpose under heaven. 

A time for giving birth, a time to die,  

A time to plant, a time to uproot what is planted, 

A time to break, a time to heal. 

A time to weep, a time to laugh, 

A time to mourn, a time to dance, 

A time to seek, a time to lose, 

A time to keep, a time to throw away, 

A time to tear, a time to mend. 

Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 (adaptation)  

There are stars up above, 

So far away we only see their light 

long, long after the star itself is gone. 

And so it is with people we loved 

their memories keep shining ever brightly 

though their time with us is done.  

But the starts that light up the darkest night,  

These are the stars that guide us. 

As we live our days, these are the ways we remember. 


Hannah Senesh 

Slightly different translation of the Senesh poem: 

 The Year of Kaddish 

Loss steals language; you have nothing to say.  A loving community buttresses you, feeding you, telling you when to stand and sit, thrusting into your slack hand the prayer book containing the chanted words that, until now, only other people knew by heart. 

Nessa Rapoport