Rights & Customs

Laws for Burial in Reform Judaism

Covering the grave with earth at a Jewish funeral.

Covering the grave with earth at a Jewish funeral.

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by Contributing Writer

The Reform Judaism movement is the religion's most progressive denomination. Often, Reform Jews have the most liberal approach to the interpretation of Jewish laws, customs and ceremonies, and this creates opportunities for the laws regarding burials to be applied with a degree of inclusiveness that can seem to diverge from strict readings of the Torah or related Jewish texts.

Leading the Service

Traditionally, a rabbi or other officiant leads a Jewish funeral service. Members of the deceased's family meet with the rabbi or officiant to share stories of their loved one's life, after which the officiant can share these memories with the mourners at graveside. Over the past several years, however, there has been a trend within the Reform movement for family members to deliver a eulogy. The practice of lay participation at funerals, often with a number of speakers, has also emerged as commonplace, although Rabbi Samuel Broude warns that this practice is not without its challenges.

Respecting the Body

While Orthodox Judaism asserts that embalming, organ donation, burial above ground or cremation are forbidden at all times, Reform Jews recognize first that state law overrides religious law, and second that the wishes of the deceased should be respected and followed whenever possible. Reform Jews closely follow the interpretation of the Babylonian Talmud, which states that the sanctity of life is more sacrosanct than any prohibition against defiling the body, so the action of organ donation is in fact an act of kindness rather than an act of mutilation.


While a traditional Jewish funeral often includes the chanting of a specific selection of Psalms, Reform Jewish funerals are now more open to the inclusion of a range of music that was either enjoyed by the deceased or reflects upon an aspect of his or her life. As Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel explains, the most significant remaining restriction upon the use of music at a Reform funeral is that it not come from the Christian liturgy, meaning that it should not be a piece of music such as "Amazing Grace."

Tearing Garments

A traditional Jewish funeral service includes the tearing of an item of clothing on each member of the mourner's family, a practice which is known as keriah. within the Reform movement this tradition has been adapted, revised and at times not wholly followed. As the Jewish Federation of North America's guide to customs explains, at Reform Jewish funerals the rabbi my tear a ribbon and then hand the ribbon to each family member to be pinned to his or her clothing.

About the Author

Brett Levine is a writer with more than 17 years of experience writing for a range of national and international publications. His articles have appeared in "Art Papers," "B-Metro," "Alabama" magazine, "Object," "Urbis" and "RealTime." He holds a Master of Arts in arts administration.

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