The Jewish customs surrounding death, burial and mourning are woven together to provide both respect for the departed and comfort for the mourners. One such custom that may seem startling or harsh at first glance is the involvement of the mourners in the actual process of burying the deceased. At a traditional Jewish funeral, it is customary for those in attendance to shovel dirt into the grave until it is full. Filling in the grave is so important that until it is done the immediate family does not begin its official period of mourning, remaining in a state known as aninut.
During the funeral, when the graveside service has concluded, members of the mourning family* are invited to take a shovel and place dirt upon the coffin. After each member of the immediate family (if they so wish) has participated in the mitzvah, the shovels are customarily placed back in the ground so that other family members can participate in covering the grave.
One reason for this custom, is connected to the relationship of the neshama (soul) and the body. When a person passes away, the neshama does not hurry to leave this world, but rather hovers near the body. According to the opinion of Rabbi Abahu, the neshama remains nearby until the grave is closed (Talmud Shabbat 152b). The neshama, therefore, bears witness to the relatives’ desire to complete the mitzvah of escorting the dead.
While some mourners may hesitate to perform this practice, the act of burying the dead greatly benefits the mourners as well, since this physical activity often gives the mourners’ a sense of closure, allowing the mourners to prepare to go on with life.
*This varies by community. In some communities, immediate family members do not participate in filling in the grave.
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