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The Grave

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Purchasing a Plot

It is an ancient Jewish custom to purchase a gravesite during one's lifetime and to own it outright prior to burial. The Bible states explicitly that Abraham bought a grave for Sarah. Likewise, Joseph was buried in the family plot that his father Jacob had acquired in the city of Shechem.

The purchase may be made through a burial society of a fraternal or religious organization, or directly from the cemetery owners. It must be located among other Jewish graves, or on grounds bought by a Jewish organization for use as a Jewish cemetery. This has been the custom through the centuries. On first settling in a new country the community purchased land for a synagogue, a school, and also a cemetery.

The following are criteria for determining whether a particular cemetery is a proper burial place for Jews:

  1. The purchase contract should stipulate that the area of the plot is designed exclusively for Jews.

  2. Burial rights must be permanent. The cemetery corporation should not be permitted to exercise any authority with regard to the removal of the remains from any grave.

  3. All facilities for Jew and non-Jew must be absolutely separate—with separate entrance gates, and with each section fenced completely.

The Family Plot: Basic Grave Formation

  1. The basic grave formation in most cemeteries is arranged according to families. There has been a custom in later centuries, observed by many memorial societies, of burying men and women in separate sections. Neither custom is obligatory. One should make inquiry regarding this procedure before one joins the society, in order to avoid problems during the moment of crisis when it is too late to make any change.

    In many cemeteries it is standard procedure—and a religiously proper custom—not to bury a woman next to any man other than her husband. This is of concern especially when contemplating erection of a double monument. Therefore, the graves alternate-husband, wife, wife, husband, husband, wife, etc.

  2. If man and wife were separated in marriage, they may nevertheless be buried alongside one another. If one of the partners, however, stipulated that he be buried separately, the request must be followed.

  3. One who has been unmarried should be buried alongside his or her parents.

  4. Married children. It is customary, though not mandatory, that the wife be buried with the husband's family. When no graves are available, they should be buried elsewhere in the same cemetery. If they live far from the parental grave, or if there are other personal advantages to selecting another cemetery, they may establish their own family plot.

  5. If, by being buried in a family plot, the departed will be buried alongside a lifelong enemy, he should be buried elsewhere in the family plot. If this enemy died more than a year before, this is not necessary, and should be left to the discretion of the relatives and friends.

  6. Second marriages. If a preference for burial location was expressly made, it must be honored. If this preference was not made expressly, but was implied, in that he clearly and undoubtedly lived better with one mate than the other, then he should be buried with the more beloved mate.

    If no preference is known, then

    a. If there are children from the marriage of only one of the mates, whichever it be, he is to be buried at that mate's family plot or at the discretion of those children.

    b. If there are children from both mates, or no children from either mate, some customs suggest burial with the first mate.

  7. Intermarriages. If the Jewish partner remained Jewish he is entitled to burial in a Jewish cemetery.

    The unconverted gentile partner may not be buried in the Jewish cemetery. Even if that person has been circumcised, but for purposes other than conversion, he is considered non-Jewish, and may not be buried on the cemetery.

    Children of a Jewish mother may be buried on the Jewish cemetery even if they have not been circumcised.

    Children of a gentile mother, who themselves have not been converted, may not be buried in the cemetery even if they had been circumcised, but without intent to convert, and even if they were educated in a Jewish school.

    Genuine converts are buried as full Jews, in the plot of the Jewish mate, or in a newly-established family plot. This situation is not considered an intermarriage.

  8. Suicides. Traditionally, those who commit the stark offense against God and man by taking their own lives wilfully, and in full sanity, are buried separately near the cemetery gate, or at least six feet from other Jewish dead. The chapter below discusses the subject of suicides fully.

  9. The observant and ethical Jew should not be buried alongside confirmed sinners. Wherever possible, this principle should be adhered to, and other arrangements should be made.

  10. Burial in Israel. The burial of Jewish deceased in the Holy Land, especially those who ardently loved the land, were religiously observant, or contributed to the support of Israel, is considered an act of pious devotion, even though visitations to the grave may be rare or not at all possible.

    The Bible records that Joseph made the special request to be buried, not in the land where he reigned as vice-regent, but in the land of his forefathers, the Holy Land. Burial in Israel is considered by the rabbis equal to being buried directly under the altar of the Temple. Reinterment is permissible for such purposes (see section on reinterment). For making the proper arrangements the mourners should consult the rabbi, or funeral director or a rabbinic organization.

  11. Burial land bought in a cemetery, even though it was officially designated for a specific person, may be sold.

Disinterment

The removal and opening of the casket after the burial had once been completed is prohibited in Jewish law. The abhorrent sight of the decomposing flesh is considered to be a disgrace to the deceased. It is revolting and depressing to the living to see the end of man as a mere rotting skeleton. The law, basing itself on the twofold reason that disinterment is an indignity to the deceased and a disturbance of his peace, is very strong in its condemnation of those who needlessly open graves after burial. Disinterment may never be undertaken without first consulting an authority in Jewish law. Most cemeteries or societies require written approval of a rabbi.

The following are cases that might warrant such consultation

  1. If it is believed that valuables have fallen into the earth that was used to fill in the grave.

  2. If a very large sum of money was placed on the casket, or if the deceased was wearing very expensive jewelry that was somehow not removed before burial, and the survivors are indigent, or creditors will have to take great losses because of lack of funds.

  3. If the remains were not prepared according to religious law, disinterment may be possible if this was realized shortly after burial.

  4. If the body was not identified accurately before burial, thus preventing the wife's remarriage for fear that her husband yet lives.

If any of these circumstances have occurred after the casket has been placed in the grave but before the grave has been filled, it is permissible to open it without further consultation.

Reinterment

The deceased may not be moved from one grave to another even if the second gravesite is a more respectable one. By holding up the lifeless corpse, once the glory of creation, and now in its ugly, decomposed state, one is manifesting disrespect to the image of God. Reinterment is, thus, frowned upon by the rabbis of the Talmud. The medieval sages add that after death man stands in judgment before God, and reinterment disturbs that state of judgment. Also, it is added, the removal of the remains to another site is a "mocking of the dead," and a slight to others who have passed on and are now reposing in the same cemetery.

Reinterment may be permitted, after consultation with a rabbi, in the following instances:

  1. The removal of the remains from an individual plot to a family plot where other immediate members of the family are already buried. This may be done even if the deceased did not know of this plot.

  2. If the deceased was not buried in his own gravesite, as for example:

    a. He was mistakenly placed in someone else's grave.

    b. He was placed in a stolen grave.

    c. Part of the grave is on public land.

    d. He was placed in a grave with the owner's permission, but it was never fully paid for.

  3. If he is interred in a non-Jewish cemetery, even though he owned the plot himself.

  4. If the present gravesite is not guarded against destruction by vandals.

  5. If it may be destroyed by water or other natural phenomena.

  6. If the government appropriates the property for highways or other communal needs.

  7. If the deceased is to be reinterred in Israel.

  8. If the grave was considered temporary, and expressly so stipulated when the deceased was originally interred.

  9. If it was discovered that the deceased expressly desired to be buried elsewhere, even though there was no stipulation that he be moved after burial.

  10. War dead buried in national cemeteries may be reinterred in Jewish cemeteries at home.

The above-listed exemptions are merely guidelines. A decision regarding reinterment was considered to be of such a serious nature that it was not made even by a duly-ordained rabbi without first consulting other rabbis. There are many specific questions to be considered, such as the time that has elapsed since death, the state of the remains, the state of the casket. These, and a multitude of other details require competent, rabbinic authority to decide.

The vacated grave, following reinterment, may be given to the indigent dead, although the value of the monument after the engraving has been obliterated is questionable, if it has any value at all by present-day standards. It may not be sold, nor any material benefit derived from it.

Ritual of Reinterment

The exhumed remains, no matter what the state of decomposition, must be guarded and respected as on the day of death.

There are prescribed mourning laws for the day of reinterment. The following must be observed:

  1. Mourners must rend their garments. See above for the details of this law.

  2. Full mourning, as during shiva, is observed for the one day on which reinterment takes place, from morning only until nightfall, even if reinterment was not completed by nightfall. No further mourning need be observed after this time. Relatives who know of the reinterment and the date on which it is to occur must observe these mourning laws on that one day. If they are made aware of the reinterment after that date they are not required to observe any of the mourning laws.

  3. A child should not personally participate in the reinterment of his parents.

  4. All foods, including meat and wine, may be eaten.

  5. There should be no words of grief; only praise for the deceased.

  6. The interment should not take place on the intermediate days of Passover or Succot.

  7. It should be begun in the morning or early afternoon. If it commences too close to nightfall there will be no time for the mourning observances.

  8. Three hand-breadths of earth from the area immediately adjacent to the body must be reinterred with the body if it was originally buried without an enclosing casket.

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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Leora Lewis South Africa August 12, 2017

I am about to make Aliyah with my children. My brother and his family already live in Israel. My father passed a way 30 years ago. It was his dream to live in Israel, and I wanted to have him reinterred there - as a sign of love and respect, and so that his grave will be visited (and not 'abandoned' in South Africa which is where we are from). I will of course discuss with my Rabbi, but get the sense from reading this that it may in fact be an indignity for him. I want him home with us, but don't want to dishonour him. Any thoughts? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org August 28, 2017
in response to Leora Lewis:

As mentioned in the article above (#7 in 'Reinterment'), burial in Israel is one of the reasons to allow it. Of course, you should still discuss this with your rabbi. Reply

Simcha Bart for Chabad.org July 27, 2016

Please see the next section Cemetery Etiquette under "Lo'eg Larash ("Slighting of the Dead")" that one may not perform ritual Mitzvot, or bring Tefillin into the cemetery, as this is inconsiderate of those who have passed away who cannot perform these Mitzvot.
Reply

SAS Saddik Australia July 26, 2016

Laying tefillin at grave side Is laying tefillin by a grandson allowed at a graveside? Reply

Simcha M Bart for Chabad.org February 28, 2016

Re: Double Depths Plot Recently people have begun burying spouses on top of each other in one plot - these are known as "Double Depth Plots". In such a case there needs to be a specific layer of earth separating the caskets. It is best to consult with a local rabbi prior to making such arrangements to ensure this option is possible in one's location. Reply

Anonymous February 25, 2016

What about a double depth plot? Is that kosher? Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein August 3, 2011

Re: disinterment It is best not to move a body once it has been laid to rest, although in certain instances it may be possible to do so, it is very important to speak to a rabbi who can advise best. Certainly the grave could not be resold, as one may not benefit from a grave. Again, whenever a question such as this arises, a rabbi whom you regularly consult should be consulted regarding the details of your case. If you need help finding a rabbi feel free to contact us via chabad.org/feedback Reply

Anonymous ny, ny July 31, 2011

disinterment My sister in law has told us to disinter my father, so that she which my father is in one ( it was given to him by by father inlaw, my sister in law's father.What would be the ruling on this? What would the rabbis say about my sister in laws actions and behavior? Reply

Sandra Quinn-Howie East Longmeadow, MA September 10, 2010

death of a jewish mother whose daughter is Irish C Thank you for sharing this wonderful information. My Irish Catholic daughter is married to a Jewish man and his mother is passing on shortly due to bone cancer. I needed to know what I can do to support the family during this sad time. Thank you for sharing the plethora of information. Reply

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