MOURNING AT DISINTERMENT
A family learned that water had seeped in and flooded their mother’s grave. They wish to move the body to another place in the cemetery. They were informed that when they move the body, they will have to follow the ritual of mourning for one day (sit shiva for a day). Is this the law? (Asked by Sonia Syme, Detroit, Michigan.)
The question of the requirement for a day’s mourning at a disinternment of a person for whom we are in duty bound to mourn, is discussed all the way through the halakhah from the very beginning. The Talmud (Moed Katan 8a) says, “He who gathers up (melaket) the bones of a parent, must mourn for a day.” This law is repeated in the gaonic compendium (Semahot 12:3) which adds that the mourning must be only for one day during the daylight and ends at night.
There are two processes involved and therefore two terms used in this legal question. One is likut which means “gathering the scattered bones” (as may happen, for example, with people slain in battle and lying around for some time unburied). And the second term is pinui which means “clearing out” or “removing.” This refers specifically to disinterment of a body already buried. In the case of these two separate processes (“collecting bones” or “opening a grave”) the law seems to be different. The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 403) when he speaks of likut, “the gathering of bones,” mentions the duty of a day of mourning. But in Yoreh Deah 363, where he speaks of disinterment, he does not mention such mourning ritual at all.
Evidently, the grief of disintering a body that already had been buried is less heartbreaking than a gathering of the bones of bodies that had never yet been buried. After all, those which had once been buried had already had mourning ritual fully observed for them at the time. Therefore there seems to be a clear tendency in the law to diminish the requirement for the day of mourning at disinterment. Moses Sofer (Hatam Sofer Yoreh Deah 353) speaks of disinterment in a much more tragic situation, in which one grave happens to be flooded. He discusses the case where a whole Jewish cemetery has been flooded (or one which is about to be confiscated by the Gentile authorities). In such a case of mass disinterment if there were mourning for one day, then the whole community would be mourning. Therefore, he suggests that the Jewish authorities, the Hevra Kadishah, must make a solemn agreement to keep the community from knowing the day when the general disinterment will take place. Thus they will prevent the whole community from observing a day-time of mourning ritual.
If the day of mourning at the disinterment of a body of a close relative were an absolute or a clear-cut commandment, Moses Sofer would certainly not have insisted that an entire community be kept ignorant of its duty. It seems evident that the law tends to diminish the requirement of mourning at disinterment. This is seen also in the fact that the day of mourning, if it is observed, must stop at the evening (Moed Qatan 8a). And, also, that no disinterment shall take place on the day before a holiday.
Another alleviation of a requirement of a day of mourning at disinterment is based upon the Jerusalem Talmud (Moed Qatan 1:5) which says that if a body is moved in a coffin from place to place, then the requirement of mourning no longer applies. This is because there is no shaming of the desd (nivul hamet) if the half-decayed body is not open to view.
A full discussion of this whole question is to be found in the second volume of Greenwald’s compendium Kol Bo, p. 93. We may conclude that nowadays, when disinterment and transferring would always be in a closed coffin, the mood of the law tends not to require the day of mourning. Clearly this tendency is to diminish the requirement of mourning after a disinterment. This tendency harmonizes with the general principle (Eruvin 46a) that in matters of mourning the law follows the lenient decisions (halakhah kemekil be-ovel).