QUESTION: Our congregation will establish its own cemetery through the purchase of a section of a municipal nonsectarian cemetery. Let me ask the following questions connected with it? (1) How should the Jewish section be separated from the general section as it will not be possible to erect a fence? (2) A number of our members are intermarried and therefore burial of gentile family members will occur from time to time, this will involve requests that non-Jewish clergy officiate. As this Jewish cemetery is part of a larger general cemetery, can we be more lenient and permit non-Jewish clergy to officiate or perhaps can we do so on the principle that each family lot is really a small individual cemetery, and that betokh shelo this would be permitted? (3) The general cemetery prohibits burial on Sunday or holidays. That would mean a potential delay of three days for burial on certain holiday weekends. Would that be permitted or should we reject the use of this cemetery for that reason? (Rabbi David F. Sandmel, Bangor ME)
ANSWER: Let me turn to each of these questions separately. There is no difficulty in establishing a Jewish cemetery as part of a general municipal cemetery especially if the land is acquired through purchase. The Jewish section must be appropriately separated from the non-Jewish sections. This may be done through a fence or a permanent, continuous series of plantings. A fence line may be created through a permanent hedge, of hardy evergreen which will indicate clear boundaries at all seasons of the year. Tradition merely indicated that five feet should separate one cemetery from the other and that the barrier between the two cemeteries should be four feet high, sometimes a wide path was considered sufficient (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #96). We would recommend a wall or a hedge (Greenwald Kol Bo al Avelut p 163). Tradition has few restrictions on cemetery plantings although they were generally avoided so that there would be no temptation to benefit from them and to provide maximum use of space for the actual graves (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 368.2; Tzavnat Panea I #74; Minhat Elazar IV #61 etc.).
We should follow the existing practices regarding the burial of non-Jews in the Jewish section. These are undoubtedly specified by your congregation. Such graves may not be marked with any non-Jewish symbol nor may Christian clergy officiate. If for some reason they do officiate they should restrict themselves to psalms or prayers of the Rabbi's Manual (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #99). There is no reason to change this ruling as the cemetery is a Jewish cemetery and is to be so considered in every way. The fact that it forms a part of a larger entity is irrelevant. In fact in order to guard ourselves against any efforts in this direction, on the part of our laity, we should be especially strict in such matters.
The question of timely burial will have to be considered in the light of local practice. In other words, a few Reform congregations are strict about burial on the same day or the next day, however, the vast majority will permit a delay so that more distant family members may arrive; that often means two or three days. Furthermore, union regulations frequently make it difficult to bury on Sunday or holidays and various congregations have had to adjust themselves to these conditions.
You might also inquire about potential restrictions by the general cemetery of memorial services as for example, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or on Yom Hashoah, although these days may not pose a problem.
On balance it seems that the potential problems of the arrangement you propose may be overcome and you should be able to go ahead with those arrangements.