QUESTION: Is it prohibited to plant trees and shrubs in our new Jewish cemetery? May individual plantings on graves be undertaken by various families? (N. Goldman, New York NY)
ANSWER: There are extensive discussion of plantings in the cemetery and their potential use. Low plants as well as shrubs and trees were generally found in Jewish cemeteries. The tradition has stated that grasses and flowering plants which grow within the cemetery, but not on graves may be used (Mahari Weill Responsa #94; Isserles to Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 368.2). However, greenery which is on the grave itself must be used for the benefit of graves, or it should be burned (Ibid). Similar stipulations have been made about fruit trees. We can see from this that trees as well as other plantings have often been found on cemeteries.
Some responsa have discussed whether the fruit of such trees on the cemetery could be used to feed the poor in the community or its wood used to build a miqveh (Maharam Schick Yoreh Deah 358; Maharsham Responsa Vol 3 #257; Imrei Yosher Vol 1 #33; Shoel Umeshiv Vol 1 #336; Rivad Responsa #42). The more recent authorities have prohibited this; their stance reflects a general mood of restrictiveness. It may also show diminished economic pressures which made it less necessary to use anything from the cemetery for the welfare of the community.
A few Orthodox authorities have stated that it is improper to plant on the graves or in the cemetery (Responsa Avnei Nezer Yoreh Deah 476), and the wood or fruit from such plantings which existed from an earlier time could be used only in a very limited fashion (Greenwald Kol Bo al Avelut p 170).
We see, from these discussions, that there is little which prohibits the planting of trees in the cemetery. The lack of trees in some Orthodox cemeteries may be due to the space limitations of European cemeteries.
We should note a number of Biblical references to individuals buried under trees (Gen 35.8; I Sam 31.13) or in a garden (II Kings 21.18; 21.26).
Let us now turn to plantings on individual graves; we should be concerned about the uniformity of graves so that there is less distinction between the poor and rich members of a congregation (M K 27b; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 352.1). Let me suggest that if it is the general custom in the community to have some simple plantings on the grave and if the cemetery provides a choice among these which would add no great burden on the survivors, it would be permissible. We should continue to encourage some uniformity in the graves both in the markers as well as in the plantings on the graves.