CCAR RESPONSA COMMITTEE
Quick Response Codes Embedded in Tombstone
Congregational leaders are considering a new service offered by a monument maker that embeds Quick Response (QR) codes into cemetery markers and gravestones. In addition to name, date and other familiar information, a QR code would be embedded into the stone from which users of smartphones and other devices could scan the code to reach a website that displays pictures, audio and video of the deceased. Are QR codes an acceptable new integration of technology in the cemetery or is it a violation of the way we are guided to remember the deceased through the blessing of cherished memories? (Rabbi David Lyon, Houston, TX
We live in a time when new electronic and digital technologies are rapidly altering the ways in which we conduct our professional and personal lives. These changes have dramatically impacted our religious communities, both in the ways we administer our affairs and in the realm of actual religious practice. As has been true throughout the history of technology, these new innovations tend to be both exciting and troubling. They are exciting in that they offer interesting, more efficient, and possibly even more meaningful ways to achieve the goals and purposes for which we come together as Jewish religious communities. They are troubling in that they challenge the accepted ways of observing our faith and the traditional standards of social propriety. Our sh’elah is a perfect case in point. It reminds us that a question concerning new technology is not merely about technology. Rather, it calls upon us to balance our openness to the exciting prospects of change with our reverence for forms of observance that we have come to regard as sacred.
1. The Tombstone in Jewish Tradition. The Jewish custom of placing a marker at the gravesite is first mentioned in the Mishnah. The practice of marking a burial site was initially undertaken to warn passersby, particularly kohanim, that a body was buried under the spot, so that they could avoid coming into contact with that major source of ritual impurity. Soon afterwards, however, the minhag was widely accepted as a means of memorializing the deceased, and it became an integral part of burial practice.
Our tradition offers little in the way of firm guidance as to what may or may not be carved upon the tombstone. In his comprehensive compendium on the halakhot of mourning and burial, Rabbi Yekutiel Greenwald writes that “originally, no words were carved upon the matzeivah (tombstone). It was placed at the grave simply so that the kohanim might avoid defilement. I have no way of determining just when people began to carve the praises of the deceased upon the tombstone.” He goes on, however, to cite the evidence of tombstones dating back at least one thousand years that bear inscriptions including names, dates of death, assorted encomia, and prayers that the deceased should rest eternally in paradise or in the heavenly academy (yeshivah shel ma`alah). Over the years, rabbis have expressed reservations concerning some sorts of inscriptions. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, for example, condemns the practice of carving the image of the deceased upon the tombstone in bas-relief, lest those who pray in the vicinity of the stone appear to be worshiping a graven image. Greenwald himself urges us to refrain from inscribing excessive praises and exaggerated language upon the matzeivah, and he encourages communities to supervise these matters. Yet the story he tells is of a minhag that has developed over the centuries in accordance with changing tastes. Each Jewish community in each generation has determined its own standards for what is proper and improper to inscribe upon a tombstone.
2. The Tombstone and Community Standards. Thus, there is no one fixed, permanent standard in the halakhah for determining what is proper or improper to inscribe upon a matzeivah. For this reason, we cannot say that either the letter or the spirit of our tradition would prohibit QR codes. Does this mean that QR codes are permitted, to use the language of our sh’elah, as “an acceptable new integration of technology in the cemetery”? Not necessarily. If there is nothing "sacred” – permanent and unchanging – about precisely what appears upon our tombstones, there is something sacred about the reverence with which we should conduct ourselves in the cemetery. This reverence partakes of the value of k’vod hameitim, the honor we are required to show toward the dead. This reverence is defined not so much by individual preference as by the standards of behavior and decorum set by the community, for while the gravesite itself is considered the property of the deceased and his or her heirs, “the cemetery is like a jointly-owned courtyard (chatzar hashutafim), and nothing can be done therein without the consent of the other owners.” Those who administer the cemetery, acting in the name of the community whose loved ones lie buried there, are charged with the duty of enunciating and enforcing the standards of proper conduct within its boundaries.
It follows that we, the members of the Responsa Committee, cannot impose our own standards of taste and propriety upon those of the local community. We can point out, simply, that there are good arguments for allowing the QR codes. The information to which they link, the website devoted to the deceased’s memory, might well be of solace and comfort to the mourners. We can imagine that they will be especially helpful to grandchildren and great-grandchildren, allowing them to see the face, to hear the voice, and to read stories about one for whom they retain few if any strong personal memories. In this sense, the QR code can be viewed as the modern technological version of the tombstone itself, which our people have used for centuries as a means of perpetuating the memory of the loved ones they have lost. New technology, precisely because it is new, may strike us at first as strange, foreign, and out of place. Eventually, though, we come to accept its presence and to appreciate the advantages it brings.
At the same time, there can be problems with QR codes in the cemetery. The codes may link to audio and video content that many would find offensive or disturbing. Then, too, there is the possibility of hacking. someone with the requisite technical skill could post content on the website that would be embarrassing to the memory of the deceased. These are unsettling possibilities, and they call upon the cemetery authorities to exercise their supervisory power. They, as we have seen, are charged with the duty to enforce the community’s standards of conduct, decorum, and respect within the cemetery; standards relating to QR codes are no exception. The authorities can set rules concerning the context to be available via the electronic links, the volume level of any audio material, and all other relevant matters. And they would have the right and the responsibility to check periodically to insure that no content deemed inappropriate is publicly available via the QR codes.
So long as these provisions are observed, we think that QR codes can be permitted in a Jewish cemetery as a way of enhancing the memory of the deceased for those who visit the grave.
1. We cite, by way of example, two of our recent responsa: “A Minyan Via the Internet?”, no. 5772.1, and “Conversion Beit Din Via Videoconference,” no. 5773.3.
2. M. Sh’kalim 2:5. The term used is nefesh al kivro, which is explained as the matzeivah, or grave marker (Bartenura ad loc.).
3. M. Sh’kalim 1:1; M. Mo`ed Katan 1:2.
4. B. Mo`ed Katan 5a and B. Nidah 57a, derived from Ezekiel 37:15; Yad, Tumat Meit 8:9.
5. See tractate S’machot (Evel Rabati) 4:12: “We do not place a nefesh on the gravesites of the righteous, for their words are their memorials (shedivreihem heim zikhronam).” This is not to say that the presence of a tombstone today indicates that the deceased was not a righteous person! It indicates, rather, that the term nefesh in this context refers to a “memorial” for the deceased.
6. See Tur, Yoreh De`ah 348 (and Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De`ah 348:2), based upon Resp. Harosh (R. Asher b. Yechiel), k’lal 13, no. 19: the tombstone is one of the regular elements (mah sher’gilin la`asot) of burial.
7. R. Yekutiel Greenwald, Kol Bo al Aveilut (New York, 1947), pp. 380-382.
8. Resp. Chatam Sofer 6:4.
9. Greenwald (note 7, above), p. 380, par. 3.
10. The cemetery is to be treated with the reverence normally accorded the synagogue. See R. Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 26, B. Megilah 29a, Yad, Aveil 14:13, and Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 368:1.
11. B. Bava Batra 120a. On the significance of this, see R. Solomon B. Freehof, American Reform Responsa, no. 99, http://ccarnet.org/responsa/arr-335-341 (accessed June 5, 2013).
12. Resp. Chatam Sofer (note 8, above).