Contemporary American Reform Responsa

97. Non-Jewish Burials

QUESTION: The Congregation owns a cemetery which is managed according to halakhah; no non-Jews are permitted to be buried in it. Recently the congregation had a number of mixed-married families join. One of the privileges of membership is the entitlement to two graves in the cemetery. This now leads to a problem. Is it possible to declare a segment of the cemetery "non- sectarian?" There is a section on the other side of the road which could be separated by a hedge. (Rabbi B. Lefkowitz, Taunton, MA)

ANSWER: Although there is a great amount of discussion of burial law, there is very little on the nature of the cemetery itself. It is mandated that every community should set up its own cemetery in order to honor the dead (Meg. 29a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 34). If it is not possible to establish a separate cemetery, then a distinctive section is to be set aside in a general cemetery (Dudaeh Hasadeh, #66 and 89.) The cemetery in its entirety has always been considered as holy and deserving the respect and protection of the Jewish community. So, for example, unused sections may not be rented out for grazing (Meg. 29a; San 46a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 368.1). Anyone who visits the cemetery, even the unused section, must behave in a dignified fashion (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 368.1). Respect given to a cemetery is akin to that extended to a synagogue (Azariah Fano, Responsa #56).

Once the land has been consecrated as a cemetery, it may not be sold or used for any other purpose. So, Moses Sofer asked a community to resist the government's request for a new wall around a cemetery, as the plans also called for a diminution of its grounds (Hatam Sofer Yoreh Deah #335). A similar opinion was provided by David Hoffman (Melamed Lehoil Yoreh Deah #125).

The only circumstances under which it is permissible to sell or dispose of a cemetery are: (1) if it is condemned by the government and the graves are moved; (2) if it is no longer possible to guard against vandalism. Then the dead may be disinterred and moved to another cemetery (Mosheh Feinstein, Igrot Mosheh Yoreh Deah 246 and 247; Moses Sofer, Hatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #353). According to traditional halakhah, it would not be possible to simply set aside a portion of the existing cemetery for the burial of non- Jews.

There are two other paths which may be followed. Some adjacent land can be purchased. There would be no objection to utilizing it for Gentile burials as this ground has not been dedicated as a cemetery yet. It would also be possible to change the by-laws of the cemetery to agree with Reform practice. This would permit the burial of non-Jews in accordance with general Reform Jewish practice, as described in W. Jacob's American Reform Responsa (#98 ff). If the interments of Gentiles are permitted only in a separate section, then those who own plots in the old section have no reason to object.

January 1985

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.