Burial Mitzvah

A Mitzvah has two meanings: a command or a good deed.  

Over the years that our family funeral home has been serving our local Jewish community, I’ve developed great friendships within the Jewish community.   

When I first began working at the funeral home as a director, their services were terrifyingly intimidating to me, yet so intriguing to me as well.  Thousands of years of traditions and customs which seemed so rigid in nature and yet so meaningful in ceremony.  I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to share some of those initial fears with my Jewish friends, and for the many things I’ve had the privilege of learning from them.  

What I most admire is the burial Mitzvah.   

In the context of graveside burial, the community has the Mitzvah of filling in the entire grave with dirt.  In doing so, it’s the duty or obligation of the community to participate.  

Another tradition associated with this is the use of the shovel.  To begin, the shovel is turned upside down and earth is place into the grave three times.  This shows our hesitancy/resistance to carry out this act.  

The shovel is returned to its normal orientation and the movement of dirt continues. From family to friend, young and old, this tradition takes place until the grave is filled.  Rain or shine, through summer, fall, winter and spring, burial of Jewish loved ones takes place.  It matters little to the Jewish people whether death comes at a convenient time; they press pause on their lives and attend these sacred ceremonies.

My own family has adopted this practice.  When my aunt died recently, we made provisions to follow this ordinarily Jewish custom.  I explained the procedures to our family and we started passing the shovel.  

But then an interesting thing happened.  

After just a few ceremonial shovels, someone said it would be okay for the cemetery caretakers to finish the rest.   No, I explained, we will carry this through to completion.  

And so we did.  

Some of us shoveled once or many times, and some breathed heavy and began sweating, yet we completed what was the last possible act on earth that we could for our Aunt Andi.

Honestly, it felt inconvenient, tiresome, messy,  and dirty.   And it felt good and complete.  

It was a Mitzvah.  

staff photo matt.jpg

Matt Hollebeek - Life Story Funeral Director and Owner of  Heritage Life Story Funeral Homes


Have you participated in any meaningful or significant burial or memorial traditions?