QUESTION: A relative of the deceased has brought some soil from Jerusalem which he wishes the family to place into the coffin. The burial took place some months earlier; should the grave be opened in order to do this? What is the origin of the custom of burying with a vial of such soil? (Hannah Smith, Seattle, WA)
ANSWER: Burial in the land of Israel has been sought by the pious through the ages. Jacob, the patriarch, and later his son Joseph were taken from Egypt to be buried in Israel (Gen 49.31; 50.13). When this was not possible, some pious individuals travelled to Israel in their old age, so that they might die and be buried there. As resurrection of the dead will begin with the land of Israel according to some speculations, burial there would assure earlier resurrection.
In our century burials may be arranged in Israel and some Orthodox families have done so. Others have sought to emphasize their ties with Israel by including a vial of soil from Jerusalem in their coffin. I have not found any traditional sources which mention this custom.
A body may be exhumed for a variety of reasons, including reburial in Israel (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 363.1 ff), but this would not include the placement of a vial of Israeli soil into the coffin. It would be appropriate to sprinkle that soil onto the existing grave, without disturbing it, and thereby satisfying the wishes of the visiting relative.