Contemporary American Reform Responsa

113. Responsibility for Cemeteries

QUESTION: What responsibility does the community have towards the care of Jewish cemeteries? What is the responsibility for graves which have subsided or not been filled properly? Can soil other than that removed from the grave be used to fill a grave? (M. Witkin, Reseda, CA)

ANSWER: Traditionally one of the first acts of any Jewish community was that of setting aside land for a cemetery. This often preceded the creation of a congregation or the building of a synagogue, as for example, herein Pittsburgh, where the Troy Hill cemetery antedated the charter of the Rodef Shalom Congregation by more than a dozen years. Congregations made every effort to own their cemeteries outright (Ezekiel Landau, Noda Biyehudah, I, Yoreh Deah #89; Isaac Spector, Ein Yitzhoq Yoreh Deah #34). After purchase, the land of the cemetery was treated with great respect, both the sections which had already been used for graves and those which were still vacant (Meg. 29a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 368; Moses Sofer, Responsa #335). Some authorities, like David Hoffmann, prohibited the sale of a segment of a cemetery if other sections had already been utilized for graves (Melamed Lehoil Yoreh Deah #125). Only if there was no possible future utilization of the cemetery could segments which had not yet been used for burial be sold (Abraham Gumbiner Magen Avraham to Orah Hayim, 153.12).

It is incumbent upon the Jewish community to look after cemeteries even if they have been abandoned by their community or those who originally founded them (Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut, p. 164; Mosheh Feinstein, Igrot Mosheh Yoreh Deah #246). If all Jews have moved from a town this duty must be borne by a nearby community.

Such care refers to the cemetery generally. It means that damage caused by flooding or subsidence must be properly repaired. Furthermore, the entire cemetery must appear neat. Lawns, shrubs, trees and fences must be appropriately maintained. Any individual grave should be filled with earth taken from it, or similar soil if this is not feasible.

Most states have provided for permanent funds which must be set aside for the perpetual care of cemeteries. These endowments are designed to provide general care for the cemetery; frequently provisions for the maintenance of individual graves may also be made in perpetuity in accordance with the local cemetery's policy. Such funds placed in trust must be utilized only for the maintenance of the cemetery or individual graves.

May 1985

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.