Many people do not know that I went to school for Funeral Directing.
I didn’t finish, as I had my son Chase right towards the end of my degree and haven’t found the time to return yet. One of my favorite aspects of the trade is cemetery tradition and how it varies between cultures. Jewish cemeteries and burial customs have always been very interesting to me and I wanted to share some of them with you along with some photos I took at Beth Israel Cemetery in Tampa Heights!
In Judaism, it is important to bury the body promptly after death.
In Europe and the Middle East, it is customary to bury within 24 hours of death. The US is a little more relaxed and usually the burial occurs within 3 days. However, it is crucial to not bury on the Sabbath, and waiting an extra day to avoid a Sunday burial is acceptable.
In the Jewish culture, there are 3 steps to prepare the body: washing, ritual purification, and dressing.
After the body is washed, it is wrapped in a plain linen shroud; this is meant to symbolize equality in death. The Jewish people do not embalm, cosmetize, or adorn bodies. This also goes for their caskets, as it is traditional to be buried in a plain wood box without any adornments or flowers.
In the Jewish faith, cemeteries are considered one of the most holy places (even more so than the synagogue).
As such, the rules of conduct when in a Jewsih cemetery are rigid in order to show the utmost respect to the deceased. Sitting, standing, or leaning on headstones is prohibited (although you shouldn’t do this anywhere- don’t be a jerk). Stepping over or walking on graves is also frowned upon. I have personally noticed that Jewish cemeteries seem to not pack burials as closely together to allow for more walking space between graves. Continuing care of Jewish cemeteries is viewed as a social responsibility of Jewish people, and communities often all pitch in to keep them tidy and free of decay (well… maybe not TOTALLY free of decay). It is important to act with reverence in cemeteries, but it is of even more importance in a Jewsih cemetery. Wearing appropriate clothing, avoiding eating and drinking, and turning electronics off or on silent is considered respectful.
Once in a Jewish cemetery, you might notice some things that are not commonly found in other types of cemeteries.
When you enter, you might see a spigot and a vessel of some sort. This is because it is customary in the Jewish faith to cleanse your hands when leaving a cemetery. Fill the vessel three times and run the water over your hands, alternating each time. Do not dry your hands on a towel- it is believed that the reason you are washing your hands is to wash off the Evil Spirit, and wiping dry on a towel or cloth is leaving the Spirit on the fabric. Air dry if possible.
Another thing you might notice is stones or pebbles left on headstones.
The origins of this ancient practice are unclear, but there are a few commonly cited reasons for this:
- In ancient times, Jewish priests became ritually impure if they came within 4 feet of a corpse. To alert them, stones were stacked over graves to indicate where bodies were buried.
- It is believed that, after one dies, their soul remains near the grave for a little while. Leaving stones on the grave or headstone is believed to keep the soul on Earth, which comforts some families.
- Stones are believed to prevent demons and golems from getting into graves.
- While flowers decay, stones do not. Leaving a stone is a more symbolic gesture as is exhibits permanence. The stone is meant to represent the longevity of memory and legacy.
There are several different symbols you might see etched on to a Jewish headstone.
Lets cover a few:
The Star of David
This is one of the most recognizable and common symbols of the Jewish faith. In a cemetery, it will be primarily used on the graves of men as an affirmation of faith and that Jerusalem is the holy land.
Menorah or Candlesticks
Also a very identifiable Jewish symbol, the menorah represents the unity of all Jewish people and is a beacon of hope. Menorahs and candlesticks are often used on women’s graves to represent piety and purity.
The Torah is a Jewish holy text that contains the teachings of the Jewish faith. To study the Torah is considered a great act of self-growth, and thus inscribing a Torah on a headstone reflects great personal and religious growth through faith.
Tree trunks symbolize the cutting down of the tree of life. These are most commonly used on the graves of young people.
Two hands touching at the thumbs but separated at the middle and ring fingers are reflective of a blessing delivered by a Cohayn over Jewish people. This symbolizes that the deceased had priestly lineage.
Holocaust Survivor Badge
This indicated that the deceased survived the Holocaust. This was something I had never encountered before, and isn’t really “traditional” Jewish cemetery symbolism. However, I found it notable.
Beth Israel Cemetery in Tampa Heights is a small Jewish cemetery tucked between Woodlawn Cemetery and the Showman’s Rest.
It is small, but well loved and maintained. Some graves have been disturbed by tree roots, but it was clear that efforts were being made to repair the graves and headstones. They appear to have recently replaced their sign and archway. Beth Israel is a cemetery that always has me coming back. Something about it is very peaceful to me. I really love the Jewish custom of leaving stones on graves, and always am sure to grab a handful to place before I head in.
One mystery I couldn’t solve was small bottles of water that were left on one grave.
When a death occurs, it is customary in the Jewish faith to pour out all bottled water in the home. However, this doesn’t really fit this situation- the death has already occurred, the water bottles were unopened, and they had clearly been left there over a few visits. Do you know why these were left here? If so, feel free to contact me! It’s been driving me nuts!