A Jewish cemetery is considered sacred ground, the guidelines regarding our conduct at a cemetery to a very large extent follow the guidelines of our conduct while in the sanctuary of a synagogue. As such we do not engage in any activity that would distract us from the sacredness of the grounds or the solemnity of the situation. For example, eating, drinking, and smoking should all be discouraged at a cemetery, or at the very least not done within close proximity to occupied graves.
Modest attire is important when visiting a cemetery, and even more so when attending a funeral.
We make every attempt to avoid stepping on an occupied grave. Traditionally the grave is left as a mound until the monument is installed. This is done in order to ensure that the grave site is distinct so that visitors can avoid stepping on it inadvertently.
Judaism teaches that each individual was created in God’s image in the sense that we have a soul (Neshamah) and that we are able to distinguish between right and wrong and choose to do the right thing. The body and soul are partners in the lofty mission of life-long self-improvement. When the body dies and the body and soul part ways, the soul does not cast the body aside and disregard it, but rather the soul is concerned for the body and wants its partner to be treated with dignity and to be returned to its source, the earth. This is one reason why Judaism rejects cremation. Click here for more on this topic. Once the body is returned to the earth, the soul can go on its journey back to God. To some extent the spirit of the person, the Nefesh, is still present at the grave site in perpetuity. We honor that Nefesh by erecting a monument at the site and by recognizing the sanctity of that site through our words and actions when we’re in proximity of it.
The Philosophy of Confronting Death
When speaking in terms of emotional pain, the only way to deal with it is to confront it and understand the source of it. This is in contrast to physical pain where there is no value in contemplating the pain, quite the contrary, to distract someone from the painful symptoms they are experiencing is a great kindness to that person. Emotional pain is different. Grief because of the death of a loved one is not a symptom, it is the manifestation of the love that we feel for that person and realization that we now have this void. To distract ourselves from the pain is to distract ourselves from the love that we feel. Why would we ever want to do that?
We do not cosmeticize the body. We dress them in shrouds, not street clothes. We stand by as the casket is lowered into the earth. We fill the grave until it has the form of a grave, with a mound. These are not at all morbid, but rather very therapeutic for the family to realize their new chapter of life.