QUESTION: What does halakhah say about the burial of a body or ashes in a mausoleum? (Rabbi I. Neuman, Champaign, IL)
ANSWER: In this instance we are not concerned with the question of cremation but with burial of either a body or ashes in a mausoleum. Cremation itself has been discussed elsewhere (W. Jacob, American Reform Responsa #100). There is good precedent for burying the dead in a mausoleum and not in direct contact with the soil, as in the cave of Makhpelah (Gen. 23.8), chosen by Abraham for his wife, Sarah. Subsequently, some Israelite kings were buried in cave tombs, as that traditionally associated with David. Later, in Tanaitic times, cave tombs became common and have been mentioned in the Mishnah (B. B. 5.8; Erub. 5.1; Shek. 2.5). Numerous such tombs have been discovered and described at great length (see particularly E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period). The Talmud also mentioned a built up tomb (kever-binyan - see San. 47b), which may have been a mausoleum.
In later periods, burial directly in the soil was preferred. This was influenced by the thought that the decay of the body acted as atonement for sin (M. San 6.6, 46b; Tur; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 362). In order to speed the decomposition, coffins were made of loose boards so that the body would be in close contact with the soil (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 362). If that was not possible, then some earth was deposited within the coffin. There has been considerable discussion among Orthodox authorities whether it was permissible to bury in a closed coffin altogether (J. Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut, pp. 183 ff). Isaac Elhanan Spector of Kovno was the only authority who permitted a temporary interment in a mausoleum during a time when it was too dangerous to bury the body in the ground (Ein Yitzoq Yoreh Deah #33). Mosheh Feinstein rejected burial in a mausoleum completely as there would be no contact of the body with soil (Igrot Mosheh Yoreh Deah #143).
We conclude that at the present time tradition emphasizes burial in the ground. However, at an earlier time, burial in a mausoleum or cave was certainly permissible. Furthermore, traditional Judaism has changed its attitude toward the utilization of completely closed coffins and now permits them. So, direct contact with the soil seems less important. There is nothing in Reform Judaism which would preclude burial in a mausoleum.