Image: A sculpture of a mourning angel. (Maxpixel)
No, it isn’t the Kaddish.
Kaddish Yatom, “the Orphan’s Kaddish” is the prayer of praise said by mourners as part of Jewish mourning ritual. It has no mention of death at all, and no mention of the departed.
The Jewish Prayer for the Dead is a lesser-known prayer called El Malei Rachamim, “God, full of Mercy.” A cantor once told me that if you want a roomful of Jews to cry, just chant the first line of it. Even if they don’t know exactly what it is, they have heard it at the saddest moments of their lives, and they’ll cry. (I don’t recommend doing that, I’m telling the story to illustrate the power of this prayer.)
The text of the prayer, in English:
God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence, within the range of the holy, pure and glorious, whose shining resemble the sky’s, to the soul of (Hebrew name of deceased) son of (Hebrew name of his father) for a charity was given to the memory of his soul. Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect him forever, from behind the hiding of his wings, and will tie his soul with the rope of life. The Everlasting is his heritage, and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.
When the departed is a woman, the words are changed accordingly. As you can see it is a personal prayer, and a prayer explicitly for the dead. Mourners are not mentioned, accomplishments in life are not mentioned, simply the fact that this person has died and is now with God.
The service leader chants El Malei Rachamim at funerals and at other mourning events: shiva services, memorial services, Yizkor, and at services remembering the Shoah. Normally this prayer is assented to by the congregation and mourners with the word “Amen” but it is said by the officiant. It is a public prayer, not a private prayer.
For the Hebrew and a transliteration of the Hebrew, see Kel Malei Rachamim on shiva.com (an excellent mourning resource, by the way.)
Rabbis and other officiants sometimes omit “for a charity was given to the memory of his soul,” depending on circumstances. I do not chant that line when I officiate at a funeral unless I know for sure that the family has given tzedakah in the name of the deceased, and the line matches their theology. If I’m not sure, I leave it out. I do not teach that tzedakah given after death affects God’s opinion of the dead, nor do I want to include anything in a prayer that might constitute a promise on someone else’s behalf.
For more about Jewish funeral practices and memorials, see these articles: