QUESTION: A man who recently died requested that his ashes be scattered and the family has executed his wishes. Now, however, they would like the tombstone placed in the cemetery although there is no grave. They are willing to buy a grave space and simply set a stone. Is this in keeping with our tradition? (Rabbi D. N. Gluckman, Olympia Fields IL)
ANSWER: As we look at the history of tombstones in our tradition we will note that the patriarch Jacob marked the tomb of his wife Rachel (Gen 35.20). Then we find various other references to two markings in other sections of the Bible particularly the graves of the kings (II Kings 23.17; l Mac 13.27). When the tombs were discussed again in the tanaitic literature, we find that they were used principally to warn priests against the ritual uncleanliness associated with the dead (Tos Ohalot 17.4). The responsa of the Middle Ages indicated that tombstones were customarily placed on every tomb and that tradition was followed by Joseph Caro (Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 89.1; Yoreh Deah 348.2).
Solomon B. Freehof has pointed out that there were few references until modern times about setting a tombstone in the absence of a body, but it has been discussed a number of times earlier in this century and, of course, following the Holocaust (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #112). He stated that when a body could not be found it was perfectly permissible to set up a tombstone to honor the memory of the deceased. Such occasions have arisen in times of war, through accidents at sea and, of course, through the tragic destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust.
Our case is somewhat different for we are dealing with an individual who specified that he not be buried and the ashes should be scattered. This is certainly not a matter which we wish to encourage. Since the Holocaust we have viewed cremation in a different light as the overtones of cremation have certainly changed for us. Scattering the ashes deprives the succeeding generations of a way to honor the dead which often is useful not only during the period of mourning, but subsequently.
In the spirit of discouraging this practice I would suggest that we always ask such a family to obtain a plot in the cemetery and to erect a tombstone. This will indicate that the practice of scattering of ashes will complicate the period of mourning rather than simplify it and will increase stress. A stone may be erected and it would be unveiled in the normal manner.