QUESTION: May yews be planted in our Jewish cemetery? Some individuals have objected stating that this plant has specific Christian connotations. (David Weill, Albany NY)
ANSWER: Our Jewish tradition is very specific about customs of non-Jews which are prohibited, and those which are permitted. Avodah Zarah (11a) made it clear that only customs which are directly connected with idolatrous worship were prohibited (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 178.1). For this reason, it would not be wrong for a Jew to wear garments akin to those on non-Jews, but he should not wear garments which are specifically used in church ritual. The same would be true of the use of non-Jewish music in Jewish services. As long as it is folk music, and not specifically associated with a Christian service, it would be appropriate as shown by Joel Sirkes (Bayit Hadash #127).
Yews and other evergreens such as junipers, hemlocks and cedars have frequently been planted in cemeteries throughout the world as they are evergreens and, therefore, enhance the cemetery in all seasons. Some individuals have associated these evergreens with the promise of eternal life. We have no specific association between that thought and any kind of plant, although the hope remains part of the Jewish tradition.
There would be no reason for avoiding any kind of evergreen in a Jewish cemetery. Any Christian symbolism may be associated in the popular mind is vague and is not universal. Such plantings would not be an imitation of the non-Jewish world around us. They are permitted.