DISINTERMENT FROM A CHRISTIAN CEMETERY
A Jewish lad of eighteen, killed in an automobile accident in a small town in Louisiana, was buried in a Catholic cemetery with Catholic rites. The family has now moved to a city (Greenville, Mississippi) where there is a Jewish congregation and a Jewish cemetery. They are desirous of disinterring their son’s body and reburying it in a Jewish cemetery. If they do this, is there any particular ritual which should be observed at the reburial? (Asked by Rabbi Allen Schwartzman, Greenville, Mississippi.)
FIRST OF ALL, it is necessary to make clear that the Jewish status of this boy is not at all affected by the fact that a Catholic priest officiated with Catholic rites at his funeral. Hundreds of thousands of men and women in Spain, Marranos, were married by Catholic priests and buried by Catholic priests in Catholic cemeteries. Yet when the Marranos escaped to Jewish communities, even centuries after, their Jewish status was unquestioned as long as their mothers were Jewish. The Catholic rituals can have no status in Jewish religious law. The Jew remains a Jew. This is confirmed by scores of responsa. Therefore, in coming to their decision, the parents need not lend any weight to the fact that the boy was buried by Catholic rites in a Catholic cemetery.
Now the question is whether his body should be disturbed by disinterment. There is a large amount of accumulated law on this matter, going back to the opinion of Rabbi Akiba in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 155a), and the laws have reached codal form in the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 363). In general, Jewish tradition is averse to disinterment. The reason for the disinclination to disinter goes back to the Talmud, where Rabbi Akiba forbade the disinterment of the body of a young man in order to settle some financial question. What was involved was whether the deceased boy was adult enough for a certain sale of property in which he had participated to be valid. Rabbi Akiba said that one must not “deface the body” for such purposes. This objection does not apply here as it did in the old days, when they buried without a coffin; the body would certainly have been disfigured when it was taken out of the grave. Here, the whole coffin is removed and the body is not disfigured This argument, that moving the whole coffin does not involve what Rabbi Akiba called “disfiguring the dead,” was used by the great authority, Chacham Zvi Ashkenazi (rabbi of Amsterdam and Hamburg, 18th cent.). There is also another objection to disinterment, but it does not apply here either, and since it is folkloristic, there is no need to go into it.
Now, from the more positive side: Is it right to disinter and rebury the body? The Shulchan Aruch, after giving its general objections to disinterment, immediately gives a series of valid exceptions under which it is proper, and even obligatory, to disinter and transfer the body. A number of these permissions apply quite directly in this case. If, for example, the family intends to have a family plot in the cemetery in Greenville, then we can say that the reburial can be permitted, because a man may be disinterred to be buried with his family. Of course, some strict Orthodox authorities would not consider it a family burying place unless the parents, for example, were already buried there; but we can interpret that liberally and say that he would be in the midst of his family some day. Of course, if there were close relatives of his already buried in the Greenville cemetery, even the strict Orthodox objections would fall away. As a matter of fact, Chacham Zvi Ashkenazi, whom we have cited above, deals precisely with this question (disinterring a Jew buried in a Christian cemetery) in his responsum # 5 0, and chiefly for the reasons mentioned above, considers it a duty to remove the body from a Christian cemetery to a Jewish one.
As for services at the reburial, none are really re quired. In the very last section of the Shulchan Aruch which speaks of these matters ( Yore Deah 403 ), it does not mention any service ritual. There is some requirement of mourning (keriah, etc.) for an hour, at the time when the disinterment takes place; but even with regard to this ceremony, there is no justification for requiring that it be done. The great Hungarian authority, Moses Sofer, had a decision to make with regard to wholesale disinterment from a cemetery which was, I believe, confiscated by the government. He actually forbade anybody to tell the various relatives when the disinterment would take place so that they should not be required to mourn. As for prayers and Kaddish, etc., all these are primarily for the honor of the dead and are not too strictly required. If, for example, a man would ask before his death not to have these prayers, there is considerable ground for omitting them. So they are not indispensable and are not required at reburial. Of course, if you judged that some prayers—a psalm and Kaddish, for example—would be of consolation to the living, there would certainly be no objection to reciting them.
To sum up: The fact that he was buried with Catholic rites in a Catholic cemetery has no bearing on the Jewish status of the deceased. The objections to disinterment based upon the danger of defacing the body (nivvul ha-mayss) do not apply when the body is in a sealed coffin. It is considered by Chacham Zvi, who was a great authority, that to rebury from a Christian to a Jewish cemetery is a righteous act. Finally, since in the Jewish cemetery there is a greater likelihood of his being at rest near the graves of his kin, it is certainly proper to rebury him. As for services, they are not required, but, if helpful, there is no objection to them.