Ask a rabbi: Can my remains be buried in more than one cemetery?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss problems in modern Jewish life


Berlin's Jewish Cemetery (Getty Images)

QUESTION: My wife and I would like to be buried in the city where our children live. But my parents live far away. Is it possible for some of my remains — such as hair or fingernails — to be buried near them?

An Orthodox view:

I am reminded of the story of the Jewish mother who told her rabbi to ensure that, when the time came, she should be buried near Brent Cross. She explained, “That way, I know my children will visit me regularly!”

While we may be sympathetic to the sentiment that seeks to maintain a physical proximity to loved ones even after death, Jewish law protects the principle of kavod hameit (respect for the dead) and so requires a body to be buried expeditiously and completely intact. This necessity is reflected in the words of King Solomon: “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

With this in mind, the chevra kadisha — those who perform the holy duty of preparing a body for burial — take great care in upholding the dignity of the deceased to such an extent that they make sure that every aspect of a person, even a detached hair, is included in the burial. This is referred to as “the truest of kindness”, not only because it cannot be repaid by the beneficiary but because, according to the Talmud, it also enables their future resurrection in the times of the Messiah in the purest and most pristine state.

In case our attachment to this world causes us to forget, every year on Rosh Hashanah, in the stirring prayer of Unetaneh Tokef, we declare “Man is founded in dust and ends in dust” as a powerful reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.

A fundamental tenet of Jewish faith is the World to Come, where a person’s soul — our essence — lives on for eternity and so, even though the body dies and decays in the ground, our uniquely defining qualities persist in the spiritual realms. This concept is even engraved in the five-letter acronym on a tombstone, which expresses the wish for the soul of the person interred there to be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.

The ultimate fate of all human beings is the same, and that is why Judaism teaches that the greatest legacy we can achieve is not to be found in the finite and physical world and cannot be guaranteed by even the tallest edifice. Instead, our memory will be preserved in the hearts and minds of those we loved, cared for and whose lives we brightened by our actions.

Alex Chapper is senior rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree (United) Synagogue

A Progressive view:

There are two separate issues here and they encapsulate the changing social and religious trends taking place.

The first reflects the fact that immediate family members are frequently living far apart, be it in different parts of the country or abroad.

Air travel, mobile phones and Zoom calls mean that they can keep in close touch, but there is also a cost, whether it is not “popping in” for a quick coffee, not babysitting and making cycle of life ceremonies more complex.

In your case, it touches on the priorities in deciding next to whom one should be buried. For me, a key factor is: “who is most likely to visit your grave?”.

That might suggest your children, but what happens if they move away from the area later for various reasons? Might it instead be best to create a family area with your parents? Alternatively, should it be near you wife’s parents? Go with what is most practical.

The second issue is that of separating parts of your body after death. It has traditionally been opposed on the grounds that just as you should respect someone’s body in life, so too in death.

This has been extended to even the most minute parts of the body, hence the care that is taken to collect everything possible belonging to a bomb blast victim.

As a lock of hair or fingernail are regularly discarded in life, they might be appropriate, but “near them” may not be possible. Another option is to add your name to their headstone, such as “Remembering also their son…”.

Curiously, this has recently become more of an issue when cremations take place, which are allowed in Reform and Liberal synagogues and are seen as a matter of personal choice.

Whereas previously, the ashes were buried in a cemetery, placed in a columbarium or scattered in a meaningful place, there are increasing instances of them being divided into two or three urns so that, for instance, all the children can have a “bit of Dad” with them.

They would not think of having an arm or leg each, but dividing ashes is being requested. Of course, for the family, it carries no sense of disrespecting the deceased and is, on the contrary, a mark of affection and attachment.

What would have seemed unthinkable in previous generations has developed into new ways of mourning and honouring those we love.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue

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