DJC’s Cemetery Proposal – Learning About Jewish Burial Practices

On October 16th we held a community conversation to discuss the DJC’s cemetery proposal at Beit Olam Gardens. I want to share some of the teachings about Jewish burial practices that animate our conversation.

A Jewish cemetery is defined as consecrated ground demarcated on all sides for the purpose of Jewish burial. Historically, only Jews have been buried in a Jewish cemetery, while Beit Olam is a Jewish cemetery in all manner of its practices in which Jews and non-Jews can be buried side by side.

The principle of kevod ha’met/the honour of the deceased, lies at the heart of Jewish burial practices. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of law by Yosef Karo, “It is prohibited to leave the corpse [unburied] over night, unless they left him/her over night for the sake of his/her honour/kavod, to provide for him/her a coffin or shrouds, or [professional] lamenting women, or in order that relatives have time to come, or to assemble [surrounding] townships [for his/her funeral].”

When life leaves the body, ideally, the body is buried immediately, returning it to the earth. We come from the earth and we return to the earth in a natural cycle that links us with the ephemeral aspect of our physical existence, as well as connecting us to the whole of the earth we are part of. The historical imperative to bury immediately certainly would have been, in part, based on the concern that the body would begin to decompose (without refrigeration) and would be upsetting to family members as well as dishonourable to the memory of the person who died. The immediacy of burial also reflects a commitment to treat the body with honour and care. It housed sacred life and the existence of a person, so the body itself should continue to be accorded honour even though the essence of being is no longer present in it.

At the same time, argues the Shulchan Aruch, there are contravening values that are also rooted in honouring the person who died and are therefore reasons to slightly delay the burial. These contravening values include: a) ensuring the body is treated with dignity and compassion by cleansing the body and reciting verses through the rituals of tahara, wrapping the body in simple burial garments called tachrichin and burying the body in a coffin made totally of wood without metal parts so that the coffin itself becomes part of the earth as well; b) ensuring that the person is wept over and grieved openly by gathering “professional lamenting women”. While we no longer hire professionals to do the weeping, the value of openly expressing grief remains central in honouring the person who died; c) ensuring that relatives are able to be present for the burial to share in words of eulogy/hesped that speak of the person’s best qualities, to comfort the spirit of the deceased and help it to let go of this life, and to recite kaddish yatom, mourner’s kaddish; d) ensuring that the wider community participates in honouring the deceased and supporting the mourners. These last two values emphasize the connection between the living and the dead in the continuity of their memory and legacy and in the importance of the whole community sharing responsibility to bring a person to their final resting place with dignity (rather than just being the responsibility of the family).

In our contemporary conversations, other practices rooted in kevod hamet include refraining from embalming (except when it is necessary to transport a body from another place) or other invasive procedures. It is important to note that organ donation is widely accepted in the Jewish community and is even viewed as a mitzvah, rooted in the understanding that saving a life is of the highest value, superseding restrictions on the invasive procedures required to fulfill it. You can look at the various articles here to learn more about Jewish burial practices – https://www.myjewishlearning.com/category/mourn.

Cremation, on the other hand, is far more controversial. In accordance with Jewish values and commitments to treat the body with honour and return it whole to the earth, cremation is not a Jewish practice. Extensive sources from the Torah through the later rabbinic authorities attest to this requirement. There is also a powerful taboo against cremation after the Nazis’ use of crematoria on Jews during the Holocaust. There are some voices in the Jewish community that do advocate for cremation. If a DJC member chooses cremation, I will officiate at a funeral, with the casket and body present, with cremation taking place after that funeral service. I invite you to set up a time to speak with me well in advance of a death so that we can discuss questions and decisions. For more information – https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-on-cremation/

Over the years, our community has made several attempts to find a cemetery solution that would enable our Jewish members to be buried according to Jewish practices and traditions, while also enabling our non-Jewish members to be buried beside their loved ones and as part of the DJC community. There are still details to be worked out, but the Board and I are excited about Beit Olam Gardens as an excellent solution to meet the needs of our community and align with our values.

It is never to early to begin conversations about funeral plans and wishes. I would be happy to talk with you and your families about your plans and to address any concerns or questions.