CCAR RESPONSA

American Reform Responsa

93. Rabbi Officiating at a Funeral of a Jew in a Non-Jewish Cemetery

(Vol. LVII, 1947, pp. 136-137)

QUESTION: The other day I was called to officiate at the funeral of a non-affiliated person. The day after agreeing to officiate, I discovered that the man had been married to a non-Jew, and that he was to be interred in the Protestant section of the local Oak Woods Cemetery. Following the Conference ruling as it appears in the Kohler Responsa in the Rabbi's Manual, I refused to officiate. The family thereupon engaged a functionary associated with one of our large Reform synagogues here. However, the funeral director expressed much surprise at my decision, informing me that so far as he knew most of my Reform colleagues had on occasion conducted funerals in non-consecrated areas of cemeteries. I have no reason to disbelieve the assertion of the funeral director. Therefore, I find myself as a new rabbi in a very embarrassing position.

ANSWER: The question whether a rabbi may officiate at the funeral of a Jew who is to be interred in a non-Jewish cemetery, may well be considered anew. The conflicting practices that prevail reflect fundamental differences in attitude and point of view, which ought to be composed, if possible, or expressed more clearly and acutely.

The responsum to which the correspondent refers, an excerpt from which is given in the Rabbi' s Manual (pp. 187-188), is, we fear, inconsistent with its underlying principle; nor is it conclusive in its chain of reasoning.

In a previous responsum, relative to the burial of a non-Jew in a Jewish cemetery, an excerpt from which is also quoted in the Rabbi's Manual--on the same page, in fact--the author enunciated a principle the validity of which he has never sought to impugn. "Our cemeteries," he declared, "are not as a whole consecrated ground, in the sense that it excludes those not of the Jewish faith. Only the spot where the body is interred becomes sacred thereby." If this principle holds true in the case of a Jewish cemetery, making it permissible for a non-Jew to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, it should be equally valid in the case of a non-Jewish cemetery, wherein a Jew is to find interment. To grant legal permission in the one instance and deny it in the other, is to rely not on principle but on personal predilection.

Some of the Rabbinic laws pertaining to the uses to which cemeteries may or may not be put, together with the reasons given therefore, clearly indicate that the principle itself is well authenticated. One is forbidden, for example, to use the cemetery as pasture land, or indulge in levity there, or build a sewer there, not because the ground is sacred, but "mipenei kevod hametim," because the honor of the dead is to be safeguarded (Yoreh De-a, Hil. Avelut 368). On the other hand, one may enjoy the fruit of the trees growing in a cemetery, since they do not grow out of the graves; they are just ordinary trees (ibid.). Similarly, one may wear a garment with "fringes" when in a cemetery and not be guilty of "mocking the dead" if these "fringes" do not actually touch the graves (ibid., 367). It would seem, then, that not the entire area of the cemetery, but only the individual grave, is invested with special sanctity.

Yet, it must be noted, it is not the author's reluctance to apply the same principle to both cases that accounts for his insistence that they be clearly distinguished from one another. The Jew who is to be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery, he contends, should be denied the services of a rabbi because "by this very fact evidence seems to be given in favor of his non-Jewish allegiance." We confess our inability to group the logic of the statement. We should rather think that, far from evidencing his non-Jewish allegiance, the Jew who desires to be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery because of his non-Jewish mate, but who yet indicates his wish that the services of the grave shall be conducted by a rabbi, is thereby affirming most emphatically his Jewish loyalty.

It is a strange logic that would permit a professing Christian to be buried in a Jewish cemetery but would prohibit a rabbi to officiate at the grave of a professing Jew who is buried in a Christian cemetery.

We cannot at this late date raise ghetto walls around our own cemeteries; nor can we ban a Jew from the benefits of his religion because he has chosen to make his abode among the dead of another faith.

Israel Bettan

See also:

S.B. Freehof, "Burial in a Christian Cemetery," Reform Responsa, pp. 140ff; "Disinterment of a Jew from a Jewish Cemetery for Reburial in a Christian Cemetery," Reform Responsa for Our Time, pp. 179ff; 'Transfer of Jew to Christian Cemetery," Current Reform Responsa, pp. 162ff; "Convert Buried in Christian Cemetery," Contemporary Reform Responsa, pp. 151ff.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.