QUESTION: An individual has died on a cruise ship, and as he had a great love for the sea his wife has decided to bury him at sea. This avoided international complications as the ship was ten days from port. What is the attitude of Jewish tradition to burial at sea and to the subsequent mourning rites? (M. G. S., Pittsburgh, PA)
ANSWER: Jewish tradition takes the obligation of burial in the earth for granted; burial in the ground was considered part of the process of atonement.When Gesher Hayim discussed the question of death on the high seas, it permitted embalming to preserve the body until land had been reached. Embalming is generally prohibited by Jewish tradition (Gesher Hayim 1.73).
It is true that burial is usually required to take place immediately following death, i.e., on the same day or the following day (San. 46b; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 357.11). Tradition permits the family to wait in order to do proper honor to the deceased and to permit individuals who may live at a distance to attend the funeral services (M. K. 22a; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 357.2). Burial in the ground, however, takes precedence over the need to bury immediately.
There have been occasions in the past when immediate burial was not possible. Rashi mentioned a siege in which bodies could not be buried; they were placed in coffins and stored (Rashi to Shab. 152a). Similar situations occurred when our forefathers were faced with various government regulations (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 375.5, 7), or in wartime.
In our instance, it would have been proper to hold the body until burial on land could have taken place. However, as the burial has taken place, the normal mourning rites should be carried out as with any other deceased.
Burial at sea is prohibited by Jewish tradition and is not appropriate except under emergency conditions.