QUESTION: The congregation owns a cemetery which has been used for several generations. Burial has been restricted to Jews. Now the congregation has purchased an adjacent section and wishes to change the bylaws of the cemetery so that the non-Jewish spouse of a congregational member may also be buried in the cemetery. They will restrict that right to the new section as they do not wish to impose on the more traditional members of the congregation. Need that section be divided from the rest of the cemetery? Would a walkway or set of plantings suffice? (Rabbi Gary Klein, Palm Harbor FL)
ANSWER: It is surprising that despite a good bit of discussion about burial customs relatively little appears in the literature about cemeteries aside from the mandate that every community should setup its own cemetery and thus honor its dead (Meg 29a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 34). As a result in many communities the first act of the Jewish settler was the purchase of a piece of ground for a cemetery. That was true here in Pittsburgh as well and antedated my congregation by more than a decade. Once an area had been designated as a cemetery it was considered holy and the land could not be sold or rented out for other use as for example for grazing (Meg 29a; San 46a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 368.1). Those who visited the cemetery were to behave in a dignified manner.
In some European countries it was not possible to obtain a separate Jewish cemetery so a section of the general cemetery was specifically set aside for Jewish burial (Dudaeh Hasadeh #66 and #89). This has also occurred in smaller American communities as for example in Springfield, Missouri, where I grew up. If the government imposed restrictions or condemned the land or if circumstances made it impossible for the community to properly look after a cemetery then it was possible to vacate it, move the graves and let the government have the site (Moses Sofer Hatam Sofer Yoreh Deah #353; Moshe Feinstein Igrot Mosheh Yoreh Deah 246 f). It was, then, possible according to tradition to abandon a cemetery for these reasons it was not, according to Orthodox practice, possible to set aside a section for non-Jewish burial. Although in Mishnaic and Talmudic times the command to bury gentile dead undoubtedly sometimes meant interment in a Jewish cemetery. Furthermore general Reform Jewish practice would permit the burial of a non-Jewish spouse in our cemetery (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #98 ff3. We have done so throughout this century.
The solution which you have described is appropriate both for the traditional members of your community and the others. By enlarging your cemetery and changing the rules for the new section you will be able to satisfy both the groups. A walkway or a series of plantings would be quite sufficient even between a Jewish and a Christian cemetery so that would certainly suffice for your purposes.