If burial is for some special reason delayed for weeks or longer, when shall mourning begin? At the time of death or at the time of the delayed burial? This ques tion has been asked in a number of different forms:
1. During the Korean war, if a soldier died over seas the body was not shipped home for months, but was put into a coffin and stored away. The family was, of course, notified as soon as the death took place.
2. During a strike of cemetery workers in San Francisco, bodies were stored in closed coffins for weeks, until the strike was settled and the burials could take place.
3. A body was cremated some weeks before Yom Kippur. The ashes were placed in a box to be kept until the family could gather from various cities for the burial. May the name of the deceased, whose ashes are still unburied, be read from the memorial list on Yom Kippur?
On the face of it, the law seems to be quite definite and unmistakable, namely, that mourning should not begin until the body is buried and the grave filled. The Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 375 : 1) states this rule clearly. This is based upon the Boraita in Moed Katan 27a, where there is a discussion as to when mourning begins. R. Eliezer says, When the body leaves the house. Rabbi Joshua says, When the “gollel” is closed. See Rabbenu Chananel (ad loc), who says that we follow the opinion of R. Joshua; he interprets Joshua’s word “gollel” to mean the grave lid, and therefore to mean when the burial is completed. Maimonides (Yad Hil. Avel I, 2) decided according to Rabbi Joshua.
David Ibn Zimri, in his commentary to Maimonides, calls attention to the fact that Maimonides follows the opinion of Rabbi Joshua in the Talmud and that he interprets R. Joshua’s phrase “when the ‘gollel’ is closed” to mean when the grave is closed. But it is precisely this ques-tion as to the meaning of the word gollel which is the subject of a basic legal dispute between Rashi and Rabbenu Tarn.
This dispute is found in the comments on the Talmud passage in b. Shabbas 152c, where the word gollel is used. Rashi in his commentary says that gollel means the lid of the coffin, while Rabbenu Tam (in the Tosfos) says it means the covering of the grave. Then according to Rashi, mourning can begin as soon as the body is enclosed in the coffin (and the lid put down), while according to Rabbenu Tam, mourning cannot begin until the grave is closed.
This disagreement is carried on by later scholars. Thus Nachmanides (quoted in Tur, Y. D. 375) follows Rashi, while Joshua Falk (in his “Perisha,” ad loc.) follows Rabbenu Tam.
Later authorities, however, seem to have made use of both basic opinions. Under normal circumstances, they follow Rabbenu Tam (mourning to begin after the burial), but under emergency circumstances, they avail themselves of Rashi’s opinion. Thus, while Joseph Caro gives as the normal rule (in Yore Deah 375 : 1) that mourning does not begin until the grave is filled, nevertheless in 375 : 4 he definitely follows Rashi’s opinion, under a special set of circumstances. He says that when the city is under siege and the body cannot be buried, then the body should be put into a coffin, the coffin moved to another house, and mourning can begin. “Because,” he adds, “the closing of the coffin is equivalent to burial.”
That mourning may, under special circumstances, take place before burial can be seen also from the law that if burial is to be in a distant city, the mourning can be begun in the city where the man died as soon as the local mourners turn their faces from the procession which takes the body away (cf. Maimonides, Yad Hil. Avel I, 5; Asher ben Yehiel to Moed Katan III, to p. 22; Shulchan Aruch 375 : 7 in Isserles).
That the mourning need not always wait for the burial can also be seen from the fact that if a body is confiscated by the government, or if a person is drowned in a limited body of water (as a pond or a river) and the body not found, in both such cases (confiscation or drowning) mourning can begin when the relatives give up hope (m’she-nish-yo-ashu) of getting the body for burial. (Cf. Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 375 : 5, 7.)
The first two cases cited with this question (the soldier dying overseas, and the bodies held during the cemetery strike) clearly come under the heading of exceptional circumstances; thus the law follows Rashi’s opinion, and mourning can begin when the coffin is closed, especially when the coffin has been moved from the place of death (as in Yore Deah 375 : 4). As for the third case (the ashes of a cremated body not yet buried), this problem can hardly be decided upon the basis of traditional law since Orthodox scholars object to cremation altogether and there is therefore very little legal development of the question. There is some discussion whether the ashes should be buried at all. Rabbi Meir Lerner, of Altona, Germany, declared that they should not be buried (cf. his “Chaye Olam”), while Elijah ben Amozegh, of Leghorn, said that the ashes should be buried (cf. his booklet, “Ya’aneh Vo-esh”).
We must therefore decide the matter on the basis of common sense and community feeling. There are many cases where the ashes are never buried, but are kept in an urn in a columbarium. Should we say that there should never be mourning in such a case? Obviously not. In cremation, where the body is entirely destroyed, mourning can certainly begin immediately after the body in its closed coffin has been turned over to the crematory.
As for Yahrzeit, memorial services, and the reading of names on the memorial list, all these are part of mourning and can begin in all these exceptional cases before burial, as has been indicated.