Contemporary American Reform Responsa
105. Burial in a Christian Cemetery
QUESTION: A Jewish family, living in a small isolated rural community, feels a strong attachment to that community and would like to be buried there. It is likely that the children will live in that community, and so, their family will be located there in the foreseeable future. Is it permissible to Jews to be buried in a general cemetery? (Rabbi A. Task, Greensboro, NC)ANSWER: The custom of establishing a separate Jewish cemetery has deep roots. It has always been felt as an obligation even for very small communities (Ein Yitzhoq Yoreh Deah 34). This practice has meant that cemeteries have often antedated congregations. That was so here in Pittsburgh where a cemetery plot was purchased in the Troy Hill section of the city more than a dozen years before the chartering of the Rodef Shalom Congregation. Your question, however, deals with a place so small that there is no congregation. The oldest Jewish burial traditions, going back to Talmudic times in the land of Israel, simply indicated that the dead were buried in their own property – betokh shelo (B. B. 112a). Frequently these were family caves, some of which have been discovered by archaeologists in modern times, or small family gravesites on local farms. In more recent times, military interments have been permitted in National Cemeteries, but of course, these are not specifically Christian. There has never been any problem about the burial of Jewish dead in a general cemetery near a battlefield. Even subsequently, when the emergency was over, burial in a non-denominational cemetery has been sanctioned by the chaplaincy commission consisting of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis (Burial in National Cemeteries, Responsa in Wartime, 1947, p. 83). We should also note that in places where it was impossible for the community to acquire a separate Jewish cemetery, a situation which arose frequently in Europe, a section of the general cemetery was set aside for Jewish burial. If possible, it was separated from the rest of the cemetery by a wall. In any case, a distance of four feet was left between the Jewish graves and non-Jewish graves (Tov Taam Vadaat III, #150; Haderet Qodesh, p. 34; Ein Yitzhoq Yoreh Deah 34). In our instance, it would be possible to create a small separate section, even if it is only for a single family. They should purchase a lot sufficiently large to separate the graves completely from their non-Jewish neighbors. They should also clearly indicate that it is a Jewish burial site through the use of a Hebrew inscription tombstone. As this would create a small Jewish burial site in a larger general cemetery, this would be in keeping with the authorities cited above. It would, of course, be preferable to continue the long standing custom of burial in a Jewish cemetery. If members of the immediate family have permanently settled in a large Jewish community, burial there would be preferable. In the circumstances indicated by your question, burial in a general cemetery in the way described would be in keeping with tradition, and nothing should preclude any rabbi from officiating at such a burial.July 1985
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