QUESTION: At the present time the funeral director of the local Jewish funeral home refuses to permit taharah for AIDS victims. Are there circumstances under which taharah may be withheld? For example, dangerous infectious disease or should we insist that he treat AIDS victims like all other dead? (Rabbi Norman M. Cohen, Hopkins MN).
ANSWER: The fact that this question is asked at all indicates the progress of modern medicine in removing the danger of most infectious diseases. Through most of our long history the grave danger of plagues and major epidemics was, of course, recognized even while the danger of infectious diseases was not. Special precautions were occasionally initiated during major epidemics, but those who died from any disease were treated alike and were provided with the same preparation before burial. In fact crises like epidemics and plagues led to the creation of new burial societies and to renewed devotion to proper burial (I. Abrahams Jewish Life in the Middle Ages pp 355 ff). Special burial preparations were only made for those who were murdered or those who died in childbirth (For a summary see Grunwald Kol Bo al Avelut p 49 ff; and Sedei Hemed IV (Avelut #141).
There was, of course, considerable discussion in the rabbinic literature about the reaction to plagues. Flight from the affected areas was encouraged (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 116.5; and commentaries; see also J. Preuss Biblical and Talmudic Medicine pp 151 ff. Solomon ben Simon Duran (Responsa Maharil # 195) approached the whole matter from a philosophical point of view and asked whether flight would be successful if an individual had already been destined for death. Isaac Luria devoted an entire chapter to the question (Yam Shel Shelomo 6.26). There were a large number of responsa which dealt with contagious diseases and ways to escape epidemics (H. J. Zimmels Magicians, Theologians, and Doctors pp 99 ff, 193 ff). Flight was the principal remedy.
Those who were not fortunate enough to escape and died were to be buried in the appropriate manner. It might be possible to throw quicklime on the grave in order to avoid the spread of the plague (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 374 Pithei Teshuvah; Jacob Reischer Shevut Yaakov II#97). Furthermore, the laws of mourning could be modified or suspended in these sad times (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 374.11 and commentaries).
Although these modifications were readily undertaken, the basic rites of burial were followed as closely as possible. In other words there is no doubt that in times of mass deaths, when a large proportion of the community had fled, some normal honors accorded to the dead were no longer possible. Yet there was no question about taharah or any matter connected with burial or the preparation for burial.
The local funeral director is obligated to perform taharah and to treat AIDS victims as all other dead in accordance with local custom and the specific wishes of the family. The funeral director would be encouraged to take all possible precautions to prevent infection by AIDS.