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Next To Whom Shall I Lay?

Burial decisions can be difficult, and sometimes they are even more complicated than usual. One contemporary category of complication involves situations of widow(er)s and remarriage. Here’s a basic scenario:

A is married to B, and B dies. A remarries C, and then C dies (and is not buried next to B). When A dies, should A be buried next to B or to C?

This precise situation arose in my wife’s family, where her father had been married and widowed twice (and then married a third time). My father-in-law’s first two wives were buried in different cemeteries. When he died, there was, initially, some anxiety about the decision about where he should be buried. As it turned out, my wife knew that when her birth mother (her father’s first wife) had died, they had bought a double plot. That resolved the problem.

Upon return from the funeral, my wife and I realized that we were confronted with a potentially similar situation, since I had been widowed (and had not bought a double plot at the time of my late wife’s death). We wanted to avoid potential difficulty for everyone down the road, and bought a double plot for ourselves. Our first choice would have been to buy plots next to that of my late wife, but that section was fully subscribed, so we made a purchase in a different section (of the same cemetery) and told our children about the purchase. (Though we assured them that we had no imminent need of the plots, they were somewhat distressed at the idea. That’s a separate issue.)

A friend recently confronted a different but connected issue. Her father had died years before, and he and his wife had purchased a double plot. But when the wife died recently, the purchased second plot was, at least temporarily, unusable due to water saturation, and she was buried at some distance (though within the same cemetery) from her late husband. My friend was distressed at this, and wanted to know if a disinterment and reburial was possible. Since that cemetery (in England) is under Orthodox supervision, the situation involved halachic issues.

Some research shows that there is substantial discussion of this idea. (Kudos to David Zinner for pulling together this information and more.}

There is a general prohibition of disinterment, to prevent:

* humiliation of the dead
* confusion of the dead
* embarrassment of the dead

But there are exceptions, which are:

* If it was a temporary place (Semachot 13:5)
* To move the deceased to a family tomb (Semachot 13:7)
* To re-bury in Israel (Shulchan Aruch)
* If the original site is unprotected (Shulchan Aruch)
* If there was a stipulation at the time of burial (Shulchan Aruch)
* If the deceased did not have the right to be buried in that space (Shulchan Aruch)

The issue of disinterment was addressed by an inter-dominational panel of American rabbis in connection with challenges posed during and after World War II, when American soldiers had been buried in Europe in what were intended as temporary graves. Their response reads, in part:

Considering the special circumstances involved there can be no objection from the point of view of Jewish law to this proposed removal of bodies to America. In the first place it was clearly the intention of the government to move the bodies back to America, therefore this burial overseas was made with the intention of re-interment; second, the government will not maintain overseas cemeteries and [there] would be none to protect and guard any graves that might by chance be left; and third, because the re-burial will be al kever avoth [“in the grave of ancestors”] (Yoreh Deah 363 #1).  [See Responsa in War-Time]

Such dilemmas go back to Talmudic times. In Tractate Mo’ed Katan (25a), the Rabbis are debating where one of their colleagues, the eminent Rav Huna, should be buried. They decide to bury him next to his equally eminent colleague, Rav Chisda, presumably because of a principle enunciated in Tractate Sanhedrin (47a), that “We do not bury a wicked person next to a righteous one,” and extend this to the principle that “nor do we bury an ordinary righteous person alongside an unusually great man.” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 362:5).

Sanhedrin cites II Kings 13:21 as the source of the principle that “we do not bury a wicked person next to a righteous one.” In an incident there, a evildoer’s corpse is tossed into a grave which turns out to be that of the prophet Elisha. When this corpse rolls up against that of Elisha, the evildoer is restored to life, indicating that God doesn’t want him buried next to Elisha.

Dan Fendel is co-founder of the Chevrah Kadisha at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, as well as co-author, with Rabbi Stuart Kelman, of the Expanded Third Edition of Chesed Shel Emet: The Truest Act of Kindness: Exploring the Meaning of Taharah, and Nichum Aveilim: A Guide for the Comforter. He was lead organizer of the East Bay Chevrah Kadisha Consortium, which promotes cooperation and sharing of resources among the dozen or so Chevrah Kadisha groups in the greater Oakland/Berkeley area. Dan is a graduate of, instructor for, and serves as Dean of Students at the Gamliel Institute.

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