QUESTION: Must the graves in the cemetery all face in one direction?
ANSWER: My honored predecessor, Jacob Z. Lauterbach, has provided most of the traditional material on this matter. It is clear that neither the Mishna, nor the Talmud, nor the later codes established any regulations about the direction of graves. The Talmud (B.B. 101b) was concerned with graves in a cavern and established that all walls of the cavern could be used for graves regardless of the direction in which they faced. Greenwald (Kol Bo Al Avelut, pp. 177ff) has provided the more recent material on the subject. It is clear that Jewish cemeteries generally faced all graves in one direction, east-west or north-south. This was cited as a hallmark of a Jewish cemetery (Oppenheimer responsum, as an addendum to Bachrach's Chavat Ya-ir). Some felt that graves should face east-west so that at the beginning of the Messianic age the dead could rise and march toward the Land of Israel. Moses Sofer suggested that if this were not possible, then the graves should face a gate for the same purpose. A new gate might be erected just for this reason (Responsa, Yoreh De-a, #332). All authorities, however, agreed that it was possible to arrange graves differently in various sections of the cemetery in order to conform with the contours of the land. So, Abraham Glick (Yad Yitschak III, 83) felt that the continuous alignment of graves might only be changed for a famous person. In order to produce uniformity, he suggested that an offending gravestone might be moved to conform with the others, even if it then no longer stood precisely at the head of the grave.
We may then conclude that it would be equally possible to align graves east-west, north-south, or in conformity with the contour of the land. It would, however, be within the power of a local cemetery association to insist on uniformity of direction of graves within that cemetery or a portion thereof.
Walter Jacob, Chairman
Leonard S. Kravitz
W. Gunther Plaut
Harry A. Roth
Rav A. Soloff
S.B. Freehof, "The Alignment of Graves," Current Reform Responsa, pp. 132ff; "Position of the Body in the Grave," Contemporary Reform Responsa, pp. 172ff.