Almost every time I'm humbled and honored to preside over a funeral, someone asks me why we make seven stops. It's Jewish tradition to pause seven times while carrying the casket to the grave. I lead the pallbearers a few steps, then stop and hold up a hand and they stop with me. Then we walk a few more steps, and pause. And again, and again, until we've stopped seven times. It gives the processional a strange, halting rhthm. It is a somber kind of dance.
In Talmudic times (the early centuries of the Common Era), it was customary for the funeral procession to stop and sit down seven times on the way from the grave back to the home, perhaps to shake off the spiritual residue of the cemetery. In the Geonic period (roughly 500 - 1000 CE), the pauses acquired a liturgical component, the recitation of words from Psalm 91 at each stop. In the modern era these seven stops happen not on the way from the cemetery back to the town, but at the cemetery itself.
Why seven stops? (For that matter, why stop at all?) The wonderful folks at Kavod v'Nichum ("Honor and comfort," probably the best Jewish burial resource on the internet) offer several historical explanations on their page about Stopping on the way to burial. But when I am asked, I don't usually dwell on the historical reasons for the practice. I tend to focus on the spiritual resonance of the lived practice, instead. First, I point out that seven is a meaningful number in Jewish tradition.
Seven are the days of the week, the six days of creation plus Shabbat. So seven represents a perfect whole, a complete unit of time. The seven stops can represent the six days of creation plus Shabbat, or in a more metaphorical sense, the whole and complete unit of time which is the life of the deceased. The stops might represent the "six days" of the life from beginning to end, and the "Shabbat" of rest into which the beloved soul has now entered. They might represent the seven days of shiva ahead.
Seven are the lower sefirot, the qualities or aspects of God which we too can manifest in the world: lovingkindness, boundaried strength, balance, endurance, humility, rootedness, nobility. We cultivate each of these qualities day by day and week by week during the Counting of the Omer, the 7-week journey from Pesach to Shavuot, each year. And every life contains these qualities. In pausing these seven times, we honor these qualities as they manifested in the beloved soul who has now left this life.
Those are some reasons why the stops are seven in number. (There are others, but these are the ones which resonate most with me.) And as far as why we stop in the first place, I teach that we pause as a sign of our reluctance to complete this journey with our loved one, this final chance to accompany them as far as we can go. The Hebrew word for funeral is levayah, which means accompaniment. In pausing these seven times, we linger with our loved one just a little longer before we say goodbye.