THE FIRST GRAVE IN THE CEMETERY
Some people object to having their deceased relatives buried as the first body in a new cemetery. Is there any basis in tradition for such an apprehension? (From M.S., Flint, Michigan.)
THE legal tradition exhibits considerable sensitiveness as to the honor of the dead in relation to the place of their burial. Thus a righteous man may not be buried next to a wicked man, and not even next to a partially wicked man. Therefore, if there were any deprecation to the dead in being the first buried in a new cemetery, then surely that fact would have been specifically mentioned. Nor can one say that they may not have mentioned the fact because they had no special occasion to refer to it. As a matter of fact, there was plenty of occasion to refer to such a supposed deprecation of the dead, because there are many long responsa on the matter of new cemeteries. Yet in not one of them have I seen any reference to such an idea. They could well have said if a righteous man died, a place should still be found for him in the old cemetery, and that a still-born infant should be buried first, etc. But they did not. This argumentation ex silentio is a strong evidence that it never entered the minds of the authorities that there could be any objection or shame in such a burial.
On the contrary, there is some indication that there was a special status and worth in the first burial. At least one authority holds that the transaction of the purchase of the new cemetery should not be completed until there is a body ready to be buried in it. This is the opinion of Joseph Sinzheim, cited in Sha’agas Aryeh (New Series, 17). This opinion is also cited by Maharam Shick in his Responsa (Yore Deah 3 5 7) . Furthermore, there are opinions that the first burial is a worthy spiritual protection to the new cemetery, since certain authorities believe that a new cemetery requires a special watchman (shomer) until the first burial. After that it is safe (cited by Eliezer Deutsch in his Peri Hasodeh, III, 81). So it is evident that according to the above opinions, a special honor or status is implied in the first burial.
Incidentally, most authorities disagree with the opinions that the completion of the purchase must await the first burial, or that a shomer is needed for the new cemetery until the first burial takes place. Yet the very fact that these opinions exist certainly indicates, at least, that there was no disgrace to a family if their deceased was first to be buried.
This fear is therefore purely folkloristic and has no roots in Jewish law or established custom. It might be worthwhile to speculate how the fear arose. Perhaps it was an outcome of the fact that the dedication of a new cemetery was bound to create a certain feeling of foreboding in the community, in that it was a provision for so many dead in the future. So one authority felt it involved an invoking of misfortune, “opening one’s mouth to Satan,” (al tivtach pe l’satan). Hence the ritual of dedication prescribed fasting (at least on the part of the Chevrah Kadisha) and the giving of redemptive charity. Perhaps this solemn mood of apprehension led some families to desire to disassociate themselves from initiating the new cemetery with their family.
But this is only speculative. Be that as it may, the clear fact is that there is not the slightest implication of dishonor or danger to a family if one of its number is the first to be buried in the new cemetery.
For the sake of completeness, I will add the main refer-ences to the responsa which deal with new cemeteries. They are:
Eliezer Deutsch ( Peri Ha-Sodeh, III, 81)
Moses Shick (Maharam Shick, Yore Deah, 357)
Isaac Schmelkes (Bes Yitzchok, II, Yore Deah, 156)
Joseph Schwartz (Ginze Yoseph, 86)
Chaim Halberstam (Der Zansar, Divre Chayim, Yore Deah, 135)
Aryeh Lev of Metz (Sha’agas Aryeh, II, 17)
Chaim Medini (S’de Chemed, Maareches Avelus, 82)
J. Greenwald (Kol Bo Avelus, 82, p. 163 ff.)