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Do Jews Bury the Dead in a Specific Direction?

Do Jews Bury the Dead in a Specific Direction?

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Dear Rabbi,

I previously believed that all the tombstones in Jewish cemeteries should face the same direction. I recently attended an unveiling, a tombstone dedication ceremony, and saw that many of the tombstones in one section in the cemetery faced a different direction than the rest.

Why would the graves in one section all face the same way? Is there a specific direction that graves should face? If so, which way?

Answer:

I too have found that in many cemeteries graves face different directions, though the graves in a given section mostly face the same direction. After some research, I have found that there is no absolute rule regarding how the graves in a cemetery should be aligned.1

However, there could be several reasons that graves face the same direction in each section of the cemetery. Practically, it saves space. Another reason might be the general rule that tombstones should not be designed to be larger than the other tombstones in the same section. Therefore it is suggested that the graves be placed in an orderly way so as not to bring any attention to any one grave over another.2

While researching this topic, I found an interesting responsum in Jewish law from Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chatam Sofer (from the name of his volumes on Jewish law).

He says that, while Jewish law does not require all graves to face any particular direction, in anticipation of the ultimate redemption and the messianic era, when all will be resurrected, there was a custom that evolved in many communities:

  1. In many cemeteries, the bodies are buried with their feet facing the entrance to the cemetery, to symbolize that they will leave the cemetery at the time of the resurrection of the dead.
  2. At the time of the resurrection, everyone will head to the Land of Israel, and therefore some cemeteries are set up so that the feet of the dead face the direction that one would take to travel to Israel. For instance, in cemeteries in Europe, the dead were buried with their feet to the east, and in others, with their feet to the south. Because Israel is southeast of Eastern Europe, one would travel either east to Turkey and then south, or first south to the Mediterranean and then east.
    Based on the above, some cemeteries in Europe had entrances on both the south and east sides and buried their dead in either direction.3

Please let me know if this helps.

Footnotes
1.

See the Talmud, Bava Batra 102a, which discusses graves that are placed next to each other in many different directions.

2.

As per a conversation with a longtime member of a burial society, known as a chevra kadisha, Rabbi Eli Eber.

3.

Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 332.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Orna Wiseman Florida June 11, 2017

Facing away from the burial? Is there a custom by some people to face away from the grave during burial? A family member just did this at a recent burial in Israel. Reply

Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum, for Chabad.org June 22, 2017
in response to Orna Wiseman:

Not as far as I know, it could just be a personal thing Reply

joann grubb georgetown May 29, 2017

Your explanation seems to be very informative and helped me to understand tradions on burial.Thanks. Reply

Shaul Wolf Chabad.org July 24, 2015

Re: cremation For an in-depth analysis of the Torah prohibition against cremation, see this article: Reply

Anonymous mississippi July 23, 2015

Cremation what are the laws on cremation as opposed to burial? Reply

Anonymous July 21, 2015

Tombstones do not always reflect the positioning of the body - for reasons of aesthetics and economy of space, the tombstones in one row may well be placed at the feet of the deceased, while in the next row, at their heads. Reply

Anonymous February 3, 2015

I work at a cemetery. We bury everyone to the east of the stone. The stones will face the nearest road so people can read them. Reply

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