ARR 75-76


American Reform Responsa

27. Building a Chapel on a Cemetery


QUESTION: The congregation plans to build a chapel on the cemetery. Could provisions be made for an Ark and a Torah? May that chapel eventually be used for other kinds of services as well? (Rabbi Roy A. Walter, Congregation Emanu-El, Houston, Texas)

ANSWER: In order to answer this inquiry properly, we must briefly discuss the possibility of erecting a synagogue on the cemetery. No synagogues have been intentionally built on a cemetery, but occasionally graves were found after the process of building a synagogue or converting an existing building had begun, and so the matter is discussed in the literature. For example, David Oppenheimer of Prague has a responsum (published at the end of Chavat Yair) which dealt with the problem of bones being found in land purchased for the construction of a synagogue. Suddenly, the congregation realized that it was building above a former Gentile cemetery. He stated that if the ground was dug and it was assured that four feet under the building were free of any human bones, one would then be allowed to build a synagogue upon it. At the beginning of this century, a congregation in the English city of Hull bought a chapel and intended to convert it into a synagogue, but then discovered that hundreds of bodies were buried in crypts beneath the basement. Rabbi Israel Daiches of Leeds permitted the building to be used as a synagogue if the vaults were cemented over. There were, however, some subsequent discussions which disagreed with his decision. These discussions show that there has been great reluctance to build a synagogue anywhere where it might be in contact with graves, even of non-Jews. For that matter, the Mishna already tried to regulate the location of cemeteries, and insisted that they be at least two hundred feet from the city and so, of course, at a distance from any synagogue (B.B. II.9; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 155.23).

As far as a Torah is concerned, it is prohibited to bring a Torah into the cemetery (Ber. 18a). For that matter, an individual is not allowed to wear Tefilin or Tsitsit into the cemetery, and these stipulations are contained in the later codes (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 367.2, etc.). It was considered mocking the dead to bring these sacred objects into the cemetery, as the dead could no longer benefit from them. Naturally, such prohibition would mean that no formal services would be held on the cemetery. This would, of course, not keep anyone from saying prayers in the cemetery as an individual, as has been done throughout the ages (Ta-anit 16a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 579.30), or occasionally holding a special congregational memorial service in the cemetery. Yet, traditionally we have been reluctant to hold any kind of service there. The chapel at the cemetery, therefore, should be constructed without an Ark and have no provisions for the inclusion of a Torah.

Walter Jacob

See also:

S.B. Freehof, “Synagogue Near a Cemetery,” Recent Reform Responsa, pp. 41ff.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.