RR 140-142

Burial in a Christian Cemetery

Is it proper for a Reform, rabbi to officiate at the burial of a Jew in a Christian cemetery, this Jew having been the husband of a practicing Christian? (From Rabbi Martin B. Ryback, Norwalk, Connecticut)

The question is not without precedent, at least as far as military funerals are concerned. In the armed services Jewish soldiers were buried side by side with Christian soldiers and the Jewish chaplain officiated. Of course, under battle conditions a body may be buried where it falls, since a “Mayss Mitzvah” “acquires its place,” that is, the place where it lies, and should be buried with the earth which has been spattered by its blood. Closer to our prob lem is that concerning the burial of soldier-dead in military cemeteries in the United States. Although these ceme-teries (as, e.g., Arlington) are not necessarily Christian, though they may have been so dedicated, they are certainly not Jewish cemeteries; yet the Division of Religious Activities of the Jewish Welfare Board (a committee con-sisting of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis) decided that a chaplain should officiate at such burials (see Responsa in Wartime, pp. 83-84).

The fact of the matter is that while separate Jewish cemeteries are an old Jewish tradition, they are nowhere specifically required in the codes. Perhaps the reason is that originally in Palestine the dead were not buried in communal cemeteries but in family-owned caves. Hence the only requirements as to the locale of burial are, first, that a man should be buried in his own property, “b’soch she’loh” (b. Baba Bathra 112a), and, second, that a righteous man should not be buried beside a wicked man (b. Sanhedrin 47a). On the basis of these two requirements, two rabbis of the last century attempted to prove that a separate Jewish cemetery is a requirement of the law. (Elazar Spiro, of Muncacz, “Minhat Elazar” II, 41; and Elazar Deutsch, in “Duda’ay Ha-sodeh” #33, #66, #89). But the attempts are far-fetched. At the most, it can be said that the use of a Jewish cemetery is a minhag.

A Reform rabbi must, therefore, make his decision as to how far he need follow the principle that “the minhag of the people of Israel is law. ” Certainly the minhag should be respected as much as possible. A similar case came up in my own community recently, and I succeeded in persuading the relatives to change their intention of burying the body in a Christian cemetery, and to bury it instead in our Jewish cemetery. There is a strong argument which a Reform rabbi especially can use. Since we permit the burial of an unconverted Christian wife in her husband’s lot in the Jewish cemetery (cf. Reform Jewish Practice, I, 137 ff.), the couple need not be parted if the husband is also buried there.

I might add that one good reason for trying hard to dissuade the people concerned in this case from this burial of a Jew in a Christian cemetery is that it may start a precedent of burying more and more members of that family in the Christian cemetery. It was this which I feared most in the case in Pittsburgh, and for that reason I dissuaded those concerned.

If, however, the dying Jewish man insists upon burial in the Christian cemetery, then the following requirements should be insisted upon: First, the family should buy a lot (not a separate grave) in the cemetery. Burial in this lot can then be considered burial “in his own property” (b’soch she’loh). Second, the lot should be located in an uncrowded portion of the cemetery, so that there may be a few yards’ space between it and the other lots. Thus it will be like a Jewish section in a general cemetery, which, if spaced or hedged, is permitted by the strict Hungarian authorities. (Cf. Reform Jewish Practice, I, 125 ff.).