When you think about wakes, funerals, shiva and other mourning rituals, you don't normally think of the social and entertaining etiquette involved. And that's certainly as it should be. If we're mourning the death of someone, it's hardly time to think about entertaining in a fun sense.
But these mourning rituals are family and community events, nonetheless. And though we don't often stop to think about it, there are certain rules of etiquette that apply and are expected. Whether you will someday be responsible for handling the organizational aspects of one of these rituals, or will be attending the mourning gathering for someone of a different religion, here are some basic guidelines of what you can expect and should do in these situations.
It's often customary for the body of the deceased to remain at the funeral parlor several days before the funeral with hours set for visitation or a "viewing." Visitors may come and express their condolences to the family and are welcome to stay and visit for the full viewing period, although not required.
The funeral may be either private for family members only or open to the public. If the hours and location are printed in the newspaper notice, it is a sign that all visitors are welcome.
In some areas and among some ethnic groups it is customary to host a gathering after the funeral for attendees. If held at the home of the family of the deceased, very often relatives and friends will supply the refreshments to relieve the family of that task. In some families, it is traditional to take attendees to a restaurant after the funeral, in which case, the family of the deceased pays the bill.
The purpose of these gatherings is to share memories of the deceased, help the family deal with their mourning, and provide hospitality for those who may have traveled a distance to attend the funeral. At times, these gatherings may become very lively and seem disrespectful to the deceased. However, no disrespect is intended.
Any of the following gestures of sympathy are appropriate: sending a note of condolence if you cannot attend the viewing; sending a mass card which can be obtained at a Catholic church or sometimes the funeral home; sending flowers to the home of the bereaved family or to the funeral parlor; sending a donation to a charity selected by the family. As in most religions, offers to help the family, including bringing meals to their home immediately following the death and for a time after the funeral, are welcome gestures of support and sympathy.
Jewish tradition believes in burying the body as soon after the death as possible, as a mark of respect. After the funeral, a seven-day period of mourning, known as sitting Shiva, is held at the home of the mourners. Friends and community members bring prayers, condolences and support. All normal activities are suspended in order for the mourners to fully concentrate on their grief, so that they will be better prepared to re-enter life at the end of this period.
The first meal upon returning from the cemetery is called the seudat havrach, which is prepared by friends and neighbors for the mourners. Traditionally, the foods include eggs and other round objects, symbolic of life, hope and the full circle of life to death.
Throughout the period of Shiva, friends and relatives bring food to the mourners to eliminate the need for them to think about preparing meals. Those closest to the family will organize dinner preparations for the mourners. Friends and acquaintances will often bring cookies, cakes, fruit and other food.
You don't need an invitation to visit at a Shiva. All visitors offering condolences are welcome to attend. However, keep in mind that it is not Jewish custom to bring or send flowers as one might at a Christian funeral. Jewish tradition encourages mourning, and discourages efforts to cheer-up the mourners. Donations to selected charities in memory of the deceased are appropriate.