QUESTION: My father has expressed a desire to be burial vertically rather than horizontally. We have discussed this a number of times but he insists and I would like to carry out his wishes if that is in keeping with Jewish practices (Norma Weigel, Berkeley CA).
ANSWER: Jewish tradition assumes that burial will be horizontal. This is true both for burial in the ground which is our customary practice and the ancient burial in caves as we find at Bet Shan and in other sites in Israel. My search through the halakhic literature has not come across any statements about vertical burial. It is unlikely that this would have been discussed in an earlier age, as horizontal burial is much easier and requires less digging into the ground. Vertical burial would demand a considerable excavation. That is readily possible for us with our mechanized equipment, but as my cemetery superintendent has told me may cause practical problems as well with neighboring graves which might cave in. Furthermore, the coffin because of its construction may collapse if placed vertically.
As long as there is no damage to nearby graves or other technical difficulty, the vertical burial which this individual has requested should be considered appropriate. The grave marker should be placed in the usual position and nothing connected with the grave need indicate that this burial was somewhat different.