A widower and his sister-in-law, who kept house for him, were both killed in an automobile accident and a double funeral was held. Someone objected on the ground that a double funeral would have been ‘permissible had they been husband and wife, but was not permissible for a man and his sister-in-law. Is this correct, and what is the Jewish law on the matter of double funerals? (From Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California)
As to the double funeral service, I know of no such law. If the objector was a rabbi, I would be grateful if you would ask him to give whatever references he has to indicate that a double funeral of husband and wife is permitted, but not a double funeral of those not so closely related.
Although not much has been written on this question, I will discuss what I have found in the legal tradition relating to it. There is, of course, considerable discussion on what might be deemed an analogous question, not directly as to the funeral service, but as to burial: Who may be buried together? An infant too young for a regular funeral service, who “slept with the parents” and is, as it is said, “carried in the arms,” may be buried in the grave of a parent. Otherwise, each body must have a grave of its own, properly separated from other graves. Also with regard to these separate graves, there is some discussion as to which graves may adjoin each other. There is the law that no wicked person shall be buried in a grave adjoining that of a righteous person. There is no real objection to the burial of men and women in adjoining graves. These laws were important because the custom was (up to modern times) to bury in a row, each consecutive grave dug as needed. Nowadays, when so many people buy lots for their families, these questions are of less significance.
Now as to the funeral service, it is the question which comes closer to your inquiry about double funerals. This also is discussed in the law, but in a way only partially connected with your question. The source is not in the Talmud itself, but in the booklet from Talmudic times, Evel Rabatti (or Semachot) XI : 4 and 5. There it is said (XI : 4) that we do not carry to the cemetery two corpses on one bier unless they are both of equal degree of righteousness and should be praised equally. Then, in the same reference, we are told of an actual event: A house fell upon a man’s two sons and his daughter and they were killed in the accident. Rabbi Judah said they may be carried out on one bier, with the two boys at one end and the girl at the other end. They were mourned together.
The next section in Evel Rabatti (XI: 5) says that we do not make two hespeds (i.e., two funeral services) in one city at the same time unless there are enough people to be present or enough eulogizers for both. This statement would indicate some objection even to simultaneous but separate funerals, but that clearly would apply to a small town where there are not enough people to attend both. The previous passage (XI: 4) about the two brothers and the sister would indicate no objection to a double (in this case, triple) funeral.
The question that concerns us here is whether the fact that the story cited speaks of two brothers and a sister is to be taken with strict construction to mean that only close relatives may be buried in a joint funeral service. Perhaps this statement about the brothers and the sister is the source of the point raised by the objector, maintaining that only close relatives may be eulogized in one service.
If this interpretation were correct, we would find it referred to in the later commentaries, but not one of the commentators makes such a reference. These statements cited above from Evel Rabatti are cited by Isaac ibn Gayyat (twelfth-thirteenth century) in his book “Sha’arey Simcha,” pp. 40-41; in the medieval law code Rokeach 314; and in the relevant place in Nachmanides’ “Toras ho-Odom.” None of these references comes to any conclusion which would indicate that it is prohibited to have a joint hesped (funeral service) for those who are not close relatives. They merely either again discuss who may be buried in one coffin or, in general, the relative merits of the persons involved.
In this unspecified sense, the law is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 344 :15 and 16), i.e., merely that we do not have two simultaneous funeral services unless there are enough people and enough eulogizers for each.
If this law were made the basis of a prohibition against joint or double services of those who are not closely related, such an objection would appear in the commentators I have mentioned, or in the Shulchan Aruch and its commentators. We cannot say that the objection which was raised at this time was not raised in the past because the matter never came up in the past; it certainly must have come up many times, considering the riots and the massacres which often occurred. Certainly there must have been occasions for combined funerals of people who were not closely related to each other.
Therefore, I offer this negative evidence: Nowhere in the law, in the development of the statement cited from Evel Rabatti, where we might expect some comment, is any such comment to be found. Of course, one cannot be sure, in the vast range of Jewish law and custom that such a discussion may not be found; but if it exists, it must be a minor or local custom.
I repeat: if the objector was a rabbi, tell him I would be most grateful for any clear reference to such objection as was raised. If the objector is not a rabbi, then I am sure you can dismiss the objection as being merely a popular notion without foundation.