POSITION OF THE BODY IN THE GRAVE
Is there definite Jewish law or established prevalent custom for the posture of the body in the grave and the position, the direction, in which it must be laid? (Asked by Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California)
WITH REGARD to the posture of the body, Jewish custom is so consistent that it amounts to definite law. The Talmud in Baba Bathra 73b (at the bottom) mentions that the generation of the Exodus that had died in the wilderness were all buried lying on their back. In the Palestinian Talmud in j. Nazir 9:3 (in the regular one-volume Krotochin edition, p. 57d, the middle) the question is asked, “What is the normal way for the body to lie?” The answer is given as follows: the feet straight and the hands on the heart. This is taken to mean that the body lies on its back, straightened out. It is necessary to note this because many ancient people were buried in a crouched, womb-like posture. So this custom of laying the body on its back, straightened out, is so universally observed that it is recorded as law in the Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 362:2.
While the posture of the body is agreed upon and may be considered law, namely, that it lies on its back, straightened out, the direction in which the body is laid is not universally agreed upon, i.e., the customs differ whether the body should be laid feet to the east and head to the west, or the reverse; or whether it should be laid head to the north and feet to the south, or the reverse. In fact the custom of directions in burial varies even further than the question of the cardinal points of the compass. Abraham Isaac Glick, Rabbi of Toltchva, in his responsa Volume 3, speaks of people being buried in some communities with their feet pointing to the gate (in order to be ready to march at the resurrection of the dead at the coming of the Messiah). Whether it is a law or a local custom is an important distinction which must be made in special cases. For example, Abraham Isaac Glick (Volume 3, # 8 3) had the following case: A woman had been buried with her head to the south and her feet to the north, which was the reverse of the direction that bodies were buried in that cemetery. The question now was: Should she be disinterred in order to rebury her in conformity with the direction of the other bodies? If it were a fixed law to bury in a certain direction, he might possibly have permitted the disinterment (although with some hesitation) but he absolutely forbade it. He gives his reason clearly, that there is no source at all in the legal literature for preferring burial in one direction rather than in another, and he says that is why the Shulchan Aruch (in Yore Deah, ibid.) when it speaks of the posture of the body does not at all mention the direction in which it should lie.
In the responsum of Yekuthiel Enzil, Rabbi of Przemzl and of Strij (responsa Mahari Enzil, # 3 6 and #37) the practical question involving direction of the body was a different one and also important. A house had been built and bought by a Jew. After the house was built and bought, bodies were found buried in the grounds. If they were Jewish bodies a Cohen would not be permitted to enter the house. The questioner wanted to decide the question as to whether they were Jewish bodies or not by the direction in which the bodies were laid. He answers that there is no basis in the law for a preference of direction.
There is also, of course, the famous responsum of Moses Sofer (Chatam Sofer, Yore Deah 332). This is quoted fully in the Pith-che Teshuvot to the passage in the Shulchan Aruch. Moses Sofer’s responsum, as do the two responsa just mentioned, also involves a practical problem. Here the problem was the following: A community needed more grave space. It had a piece of land adjoining the old filled-up cemetery. But the shape of this unused land would necessitate changing the directions of the rows from the directions followed in the older part of the cemetery. For example, instead of the rows running from north to south, they would in this new part of the cemetery run from east to west. Is this change of direction to be permitted? In his answer, Moses Sofer proves from the discussion of the burial cave in Baba Bathra 101 a & b that the direction in which the body is placed in the grave makes no difference.
The matter is summed up by Yehiel Epstein in his authoritative code Aruch Ha-Schulchan, Yore Deah 362, in which he says that there is no basis for any preference of one direction over another. It all depends upon the local custom. Nevertheless it is important to follow the custom, whatever it happens to be in the locality. In other words, all the bodies must be buried in the direction consistent with the burying of all the other bodies in that city.
The reason for being careful to bury in the direction consistent with the local custom was that sometimes they purposely buried heretics and suicides in a direction different from the other graves. Because of this custom it might happen, at some later date, that when a body is found to have been buried in a direction different from that of the others, people might imagine that this body was purposely so buried because it was the body of an evil person. Such an opinion might be a grave injustice to the memory of the departed. Therefore in the responsum from Yad Yitzchok mentioned above, in the case of the woman who by accident or carelessness was buried in a direction different from the rest of the bodies, he forbids (as was said above) disinterment of the body, inasmuch as the direction in which it lies is not a matter of strict legal requirement. However, in order that her memory might not be slandered in the future, he suggests that the tombstone be placed not at her head, as is usually the custom, but at her feet, so that it should appear consistent with all the other graves.
The whole question is fully discussed by Greenwald in his Kol Bo, p. 177 ff. To all the references mentioned above, he adds another important fact, namely, that many famous scholars had specifically asked that their bodies be buried in a direction different from that of the other graves. This in itself is proof that the choice of any special direction is not required by law.
To sum up: The law is quite definite that all bodies be laid on their back but that the custom varies from community to community as to the direction in which the body must be laid. The general feeling of the scholars is that whatever the local custom happens to be, it should be followed consistently. But even this consistency is not a legal requirement since, as cited by Greenwald, many great scholars specifically asked to be buried in a direction different from the rest of the bodies in the cemetery. At all events, if the body is laid on its back, then all the requirements of the law as to posture and placement have been completely fulfilled.