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    When tragedy strikes: Jewish traditions of burial & bereavement

    By Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD, emeritus senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney

    Why burial, not cremation?

    Judaism regards burial in the earth as the only correct procedure. Cremation, which in ancient times was seen as a shameful fate, is the ultimate wanton desecration of the human body.

    How many bodies may be buried in a grave?

    Each person is entitled to their own identifiable resting place. Normally, therefore, only one body is interred in each grave. There are communities where, because of shortage of space, two bodies occupy the same grave, subject to strict halachic regulations.

    May non-Jews be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

    A Jewish cemetery is consecrated for the burial, with all due Jewish ceremony, of members of the Jewish faith. Only Jews may be buried there.

    What happens to a suicide?

    In former centuries a suicide was buried on the perimeter of the cemetery. He was deemed to have wilfully defied the Almighty by destroying the life God had given him. These days a suicide is regarded as having acted irrationally in a state of extreme depression and despair, and normal burial takes place.

    Does a stillborn child have a funeral?

    A stillborn is buried in the cemetery, though without the usual ceremonies. Prior to interment a Hebrew name is given to the infant. If a boy, it is circumcised.

    What about amputated limbs?

    Burial is required for amputated limbs, though without any ceremony. The Chevra Kadisha should be asked to make arrangements to collect the limb from the hospital.

    When does burial take place?

    As soon as possible after death. Judaism deems it disrespectful to leave the body unburied for any length of time unless there are special circumstances such as allowing time for family to arrive.

    Who may attend a funeral?

    In some communities it is not customary for women and children to attend funerals. Today there are generally no objections to women and/or children being present; it shows that death is part of life. It all depends on people’s state of mind.

    How should people behave at the cemetery?

    With dignity and decorum. Males and females should have their heads covered. Any acts of levity, even eating and drinking, should be avoided.

    Where should someone who has been married previously be buried?

    If a previous spouse has died and a person has married again, the question of whether to be buried beside the first or the second spouse must be handled diplomatically.

    The preference of the deceased must be respected. If no preference has been expressed, the deceased should be buried next to the parent of his/her children. If both spouses had children with the deceased, preference is given to the first wife or husband. The fact of being buried next to the first spouse must not be taken as reflecting badly on the second wife or husband.

    Who puts earth on the coffin after it has been lowered?

    Beginning with the close relatives, all present help to fill in the grave with earth. Most rabbis allow or encourage women, not only men, to take part in this mitzvah.

    The spade is not passed directly from person to person, but replaced in the earth and then picked up by the next person. The filling of the grave should be completed before the service proceeds.

    Do we allow flowers at funerals?

    This is not the Jewish custom and should be avoided. We prefer people who wish to honour the deceased to choose an act that will benefit the living, such as donating to a charity or communal organisation.

    What about placing a picture of the deceased on the gravestone?

    This contravenes the long-established procedures in our community and the Sydney Beth Din has ruled against it.

    Is a lawn cemetery permitted?

    Subject to strict conditions, yes. Each grave must be fully demarcated on all sides by a continuous row of stones or bricks, which may be flush with the ground. There must be a memorial tablet recording the identity of the deceased. No-one may walk or step on the grave. No benefit may be derived from the grass cuttings from the grave.

    May a Jewish grave be used for a limited tenure and then allocated to someone else?

    Each grave must be the independent, identifiable resting place for a deceased person, in perpetuity. Limited tenure is not acceptable to Judaism.

    What should be on a tombstone?

    The basic Hebrew inscription should record, “Here lies buried X the son/daughter of Y”, with the Hebrew date of death and the abbreviation for the words, “May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life”. The English wording depends on the family’s preference. Nothing provocative, offensive or undignified should be included.

    When does the tombstone consecration (unveiling) take place?

    Contrary to popular belief, there is no set time. Some communities prefer to have the matzevah erected and consecrated as soon as possible after death. Others wait eleven or twelve months.

    Why is it customary to place a stone or some grass on a grave?

    Leaving a stone or plucked grass indicates that the visitor has paid due honour to the deceased. Why a stone? Some say that because a stone is strong and survives the normal elements, it symbolises immortality. Why grass? When grass. is plucked new grass grows up in its place, and hence it is a symbol of the resurrection of the dead.

    Why wash one’s hands on leaving the cemetery?

    Some link this practice to the verses in the Torah relating to the elders of the city nearest to where a corpse was found, washing their hands and saying, “Our hands did not shed this blood”. Washing the hands may indicate the wish to clear yourself of any guilt you might feel in connection with the person’s death. Another view sees water as a symbol of creation and birth, and thus it expresses our faith in immortality and resurrection.

    May God grant all of us long life, and give us the privilege, when the time comes, of being buried in dignity and resting in serenity until the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of the dead to life.

    Related articles by Rabbi Apple:
    A Jewish guide to death & bereavement
    Death in Judaism
    Articles on Death & Bereavement
    Death & bereavement – Ask the Rabbi

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