QUESTION: What is the traditional approach to burial for miscarriages, still-born children and infants who die shortly after birth? What burial procedure and mourning customs are appropriate in the Reform Movement in this matter? (Rabbi R. J. Orkand, Westport, CT)
ANSWER: Jewish law is quite clear on the status of an infant who dies before reaching the age of thirty days. After that time, formal burial is required; before that time it is not. The child who dies before that time is considered a nefel and for such a child (strictly speaking considered stillborn if he does not survive thirty days), no burial and no mourning rites are required (Ket. 20b; Shab. 135b; Evel Rabati I; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 266; Ettlinger, Binyan Zion #133; Jacob Reischer, Shevut Yaaqov Vol. II, #10). A further statement by the Shulhan Arukh gives us some idea of the attitude to the death of children in our tradition. The question asked whether a eulogy (hesped) can be given for a young child, and the conclusion is for the children of the poor it may be done from age of five and onward, and for the children of the rich, six and onward (M. K. 24b; Shulhan Arukh 344.4). All of this indicates that relatively little was made of infant deaths or abortions. They occurred frequently and the communities would have been in a constant state of mourning if rites had been required.
A nefel was, therefore, treated in the same way as amputated limbs, and buried in the general section of the cemetery (Ket. 20.b). This was done to avoid ritual uncleanliness for the priests (M. Edut 6.3; Yad Hil. Tumat Hamet 2.3; Pahad Yitzhaq, Ever). Strictly speaking, it was not necessary to bury amputated limbs (Jacob Reischer, Shevut Yaaqov II, #10; Ezekiel Landau, Noda Biyehudah II, Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah #209; J. Greenwald Kol Bo Al Avelut, p. 184).
In our time matters have, however, changed and most families have very few children, so all the events in a child's life have become significant and magnified. That, of course, includes the tragic death of a young child, a still-birth, or miscarriage. We would, therefore, suggest that there be a simple burial of a still-born infant or a child who dies at an early age. This will provide a way for the family to overcome its grief. A miscarriage may, however, be disposed of by the hospital or clinic in accordance with its usual procedures. No burial is necessary but it is also not prohibited; we would suggest it for infants and possibly for still-births.