RR 154-157

Uniformity of Tombstones

A number of Reform congregations have established the rule in their cemeteries that all tombstones shall conform to a similar standard of height and type, with the aim of establishing simplicity as well as uniform ity. Is this rule in accordance with the spirit of Jewish law?

From the earliest times there has been a tendency in Jewish law to simplify the whole process of burial. In the time of Rabban Gamaliel, a tendency toward extravagance arose. People began to vie with each other in providing expensive garments for the dead. Thereupon Rabban Gamaliel, although himself well-to-do, set the example of modesty by making arrangements to be buried in simple linen garments. That is how the custom arose to bury all the dead in the same type of simple shroud (b. Ketubot 8 band Moed Katan 27b).

With specific regard to tombstones, the tendency must likewise have been toward simplicity. The original purpose of the tombstone was merely to mark the grave (Tziun) as a warning to priests that they should not approach and thus be defiled. Hence there was no tendency among the Jews, as there was among the Greeks and the Romans, to make those elaborate sarcophagi found among the Romans. The Greek and Roman sarcophagi were elaborate also because they were to hold the remains of the honored dead, whereas among the Jews, although there is some mention of stone coffins, bodies were put into niches in caves, or simply put into the ground; the stone was merely a marker. Hence the tendency was to make burial very simple. In fact, the Talmud (j. Shekalim II, 6) declares that “as far as the righteous people are concerned, we need not make tombstones at all. Their words are their memorial.”

In Hadras Kodesh, by Joseph Schwartz (1931)—a volume devoted to the rules governing the burial society and containing numerous letters from various rabbis on matters dealing with burial, and so forth—there are two letters on the question of expensive tombstones: one (Letter #20, p. 30&) denounces the expensive tombstones that are being set up in the United States; the other (Letter #3 1, p. 37a) deals with the same theme. David Terni (in “Ikre Ha-dat” to Yore Deah 35 : 4) quotes the above Talmudic statement and says, citing another authority, that if we do set up a tombstone for the righteous, it must be a very simple one.

In addition to this desire for simplicity, there is also a desire for uniformity and democracy in the cemetery. Besides the Talmudic statement of Rabban Gamaliel, insisting upon simple shrouds, the famous responsum of David Oppenheimer, of Prague (published at the end of Jair Chaim Bachrach’s “Chavos Jair”), indicates clearly that uniformity is the test of a Jewish cemetery. The problem with which Oppenheimer deals in his responsum concerns the digging of the foundation for a new synagogue. Bones were found in the digging and the question arose, Does the presence of these bones indicate a Jewish cemetery (which the synagogue would be bound to leave untouched) and will the building of the new synagogue therefore have to be halted? He bases his decision on the Talmud (b. Nazir 65a), which speaks of which bones may be removed if they are found. The Talmud there says that if the bodies lie buried in various ways, lying in different postures, this is evidence that this is a pagan cemetery. Oppenheimer, developing this Talmudic test, states that in Jewish burial all bodies are laid out in a uniform way and in the same order; but that it is the way of the “Amorites” to bury without uniform order. In fact, in the traditional cemeteries the bodies were laid out in the same direction and in rows in the order of their burial, with only these exceptions: that the righteous should not be buried beside the wicked, and that enemies should not be buried side by side.

Moses Schick (Responsa “Maharam Schick,” Yore Deah 170), in voicing his objection to a proposed tombstone on which a relief portrait of the deceased was to be incised, says, among his various arguments, that a cemetery is a courtyard of partners and that nothing exceptional must be put there to which the other partners might object. Abraham Isaac Glick (“Yad Yitzchok” III, 83) has dealt with an interesting question that is relevant to our discussion. By mistake, a woman buried in the row was interred in a position reverse to that of the other corpses, the head facing the opposite direction. Glick was asked whether this body should be disinterred so as to rebury it in a way uniform with the others; also, where the tombstone should be set on that grave. He does not permit the disinterment, since Jewish law is very loath to give such permission. As for the tombstone, which usually is set at the head, he says that in this case it should be set at the feet, in order not to look different from those on all the other graves, for it would be a shame to the dead to be forever signalized as different from the others, especially as years go by and people no longer know the reason for it.

The simplicity and the uniformity which were the whole tendency of Jewish law and custom in this regard could be achieved without too much difficulty in the old-fashioned cemeteries, where the bodies were buried one after another in the row. It is a little more difficult to achieve in our modern cemeteries, where the bodies are buried in family plots and where there is a greater tendency for families to have, out of family pride or resources, especially impressive tombstones. We must therefore make a conscious effort toward expressing the spirit of Jewish law. The practice of uniform tombstones is certainly expressive of that spirit.