BODY PARTS MIXED IN BURIAL
A Jewish woman and a Gentile man were in an automobile accident and both killed, and evidently the bodies broken up. The officials, releasing the bodies to the families for burial, blundered in separating the body parts, and so parts of the body of the Jewish woman were buried in the coffin of the Gentile in the Gentile cemetery. What shall be done under these circumstances? (Asked by Rabbi Mark Staitman, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)
As far as I know, there is only one case discussed in the legal literature that bears some resemblance, although it is not an exact resemblance to this sad situation. Isaac Glick (Yad Yitzhaq III, 337) speaks of the amputated limb of a Jew that was buried with a Gentile body. In this case the Jew was still alive and therefore there was not the usual need of reuniting the limb with the rest of the body, as would be the case if the man were dead. In this case, therefore, Glick is not too definite that the limb be disinterred from the Gentile grave.
As for this specific case, aside from the understandable grief of the family, first as to the accident and then as to the rather horrible mixture of the bodies, it is evident that what the officials have done (unintentionally, of course) is in violation of many requirements of Jewish tradition.
First of all, it is required that Jewish bodies be buried in Jewish cemeteries. There are many decisions which decide between the general objection of disinterment and the duty to disinter from a Gentile cemetery. Even when soldiers are honorably buried on the battlefield and according to Jewish law the grave becomes their property, nevertheless it is permitted to disinter them to bury in a Jewish cemetery (See Hakham Zevi, 50, and other references in Greenwald’s Kol Bo, 242-3).
The second requirement of Jewish law in a situation such as this is that an entire body be buried with all its parts together (cf. ihrei Zahav to Shulhan Amid). Yoreh Deah 339:4). Thus if a limb is amputated in lifetime and the person later dies, it is preferred that the limb which has been buried separately now be buried together with the body. If, therefore, the limbs of the Jewess could be easily removed from the Gentile grave and buried with her body, this, of course, would be the preferred procedure.
However, this comparatively simple readjustment of the official’s error cannot be easily made. Evidently the parts of the body of the Jewess were easily mistaken by the officials and turned over to the Gentile family. How would it be possible now, if the Gentile grave were opened and the body parts studied, to distinguish the various parts? Furthermore, even if the body parts could be identified, which is doubtful, the coffin of the Jewess should also be opened, presumably to identify parts of the Gentile body which was buried in her coffin, so that the gruesome exchange could be effected.
All of this complicated and miserable procedure involves a principle concern with the dignity of the body of the dead, namely, nivul hamet, literally “the ugliness of the dead.” That is to say, we are prohibited to gaze upon the ugly spectacle of the decaying body and thus shame the memory of the dead. In this vain attempt to identify body parts, nivul hamet, the shaming of the dead, which applies also to the Gentile dead, would indeed occur.
There is a further consideration. The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 363) makes it clear that no bodies may be disinterred and moved unless for certain specified purposes. Since these parts of the body are perhaps unidentifiable and that is why the original mistake was made, then possibly wrong bodily parts will be moved, which would be unjustified by the law.
Therefore, although it is preferable by Jewish tradition to bury all parts of the body in one grave, and also to remove a body from a Gentile cemetery to a Jewish one, in this case it would be impossible, or at least very difficult, to separate the various parts and the shaming of the dead (nivul hamet) and the deep grief this would cause to the living, and the possible communal ill will stirred up by disturbing the Gentile grave, makes it preferable that the unfortunate incident should be accepted as it is and both bodies allowed to rest.