Rabbi I Have a Problem

Do I have to be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


Question: “I was told there is actually no halachic requirement to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, so why should we not choose to be buried in a place of our choice?”

Rabbi Brawer: To answer your question, I’m going to focus on two distinct aspects. The first, can a Jew be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. The second, must a Jew be buried in a cemetery altogether?

While the Mishnah and Talmud do not explicitly state that there is a requirement to be buried among Jews, the early medieval rabbis (Rishonim) insisted that Jews be buried apart from gentiles.  

The Talmud rules that “we bury the gentile dead alongside the Jewish dead, for the sake of peaceable relations” (Gittin 61a). Yet Rashi (11th century) commenting on this rule, insists that the language not be taken literally to mean that Jews and gentiles are buried side by side, but rather that Jews are obligated to tend to the gentile dead as they would their own. 

The Ran (Rabbi Nissim of Gerona 15th century) is more explicit in ruling that Jews may categorically not be buried alongside gentiles. This is the basis for separate Jewish burial grounds. Later halachists such as Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (17th century) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (20th century) rule that Jewish remains may be disinterred if they are buried in a gentile cemetery.

But how important is it to be buried in a cemetery?

In biblical times there were no public cemeteries to speak of. Biblical figures were buried in small family plots and sometimes, as with Rachel, in a field on the side of the road. In the mishnaic period we similarly find references to family burial plots; sometimes these were in fields and often in caves.

Eventually larger catacombs were designated followed by communal burial grounds, what we now call cemeteries. Jewish cemeteries hold a very important place in the Jewish communal identity.  One is born into, or chooses, the Jewish community and one is eventually laid to rest within that community. Being buried in a Jewish cemetery is a tangible way to maintain one’s connection with one’s people. 

Visiting old Jewish cemeteries, and reading the inscriptions on weather-beaten headstones, conjures up for me, not just the individuals whose names I read, but of entire communities bound together in death as in life.

So, while there is no strict halachic rule preventing one from being buried alone in a field or in the woods, one will have relinquished a sense of deep belonging that can transcend life itself.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University 


Rabbi Romain: When a new Jewish cemetery is opened, there is often a consecration service, but technically there is no need to designate it as ground fit for Jews to be buried in, for land by itself is not sacred. It is only when a person has been buried that the area takes on a special significance. It is individual graves that are sacred, 
not the wider space.

It means  a Jew can be buried anywhere. What is important is not that it is in a Jewish cemetery, but that the grave is marked and that it is protected from harm. This extends from the matriarch Rachel, who was buried by the roadside in biblical times (Genesis 35.19), to Jewish soldiers in two world wars interred in British military cemeteries abroad.

Of course, there are many advantages to being in a Jewish cemetery: you are more likely to be with other members of your family, or your community, while relatives will probably come to your grave more often if you are located near others whom they are visiting.

 It may also be that some relatives find it uncomfortable going to a non-Jewish cemetery, where there will be symbols of other faiths and where they will feel less “at home”.
 All this begs the question of where you yourself want to be laid to rest? You do not indicate, so let me run through some possibilities:

 Perhaps it is in a cemetery that is much closer to you (or your children) and where your partner or offspring will find it easier to visit. Fair enough. I once buried someone in a cemetery that was next door to their home for precisely that reason.

 Perhaps you wish to be buried in your own garden. I have done that once too, but usually advise against it, partly because the family may feel guilty at leaving you behind if ever they move, and partly because prospective buyers may be less keen to have a body in the back garden.

Perhaps it is in a spot that holds special significance to you, or maybe in a cemetery where a close non-Jewish relative is already buried and you wish to be with them. In all these instances, it is wise to let family know in advance, so as to explain your reasons and in case they have objections that you can consider. In the meantime,, keep breathing.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

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