QUESTION: In this congregation with its mixture of more traditional and more liberal minded families, the bereaved family at the funeral often wishes the grave to be filled or partially filled after interment. As the temperature in the summer may reach as high as 118, the minyan which normally gathers at the graveside resists doing this in such excessive heat. What is the traditional response to filling in the grave under these circumstances? (Rabbi Albert Michels, Sun City AZ)
ANSWER: As you quite properly state it is not our custom to fill the grave at all while the mourners are present, as this is especially difficult for them and at least in our present mood does not help them recover from their grief. The general feeling of tradition, of course, is that mourning begins once the grave has been filled (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 371). I do not know of any question which arose akin to yours in which burial was difficult because of excessive heat. In ancient Israel a fair number of burials took place in caves and so, of course, the problem did not arise as the site was cooler and as rolling a stone completed the burial (M K 27a; Matt 28.2). Of course, under your circumstances this could be done in the evening by individuals working in the cemetery, or even in the daytime after the mourners had left, using machinery.
Under special circumstances when it was not possible to bury, as for example when there was a grave diggers strike and graves could not be prepared for burial, then mourning began once the coffin was sealed and placed in storage rather than waiting for the strike to be over (Solomon B. Freehof Reform Responsa #36). The other occasion when burial was not possible incurred in Russia and Poland with its harsh winters which sometimes froze the ground so that it was not possible to bury anyone, and the deceased were placed in a coffin and stored until weather conditions had changed. In both of these instances we are dealing with the entire burial not simply with the filling in of the grave.
Although it has become customary in traditional circles for relatives and friends to fill in the grave, this is not required. The custom stems from a time when all such work was done on a voluntary basis. The presence of a large number of individuals at the graveside assured that the task would be shared and be done rather quickly. These are not considerations for us, and under the circumstances you describe it would be perfectly proper and within the bounds of tradition to have the same people who dug the grave fill it with their mechanical equipment after the mourners had left. Those present at the interment could throw a few handfuls of dirt onto the coffin (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah, 375.1).
In any case because of pikuah nefesh (Deut 4.0; 4.15; Ber 32b; B K 91b; Yad Hil Rotzeah Ushemmirat Hanefesh 11.4; Hil Shavuot 5.57; Hil Hovel Umaziq 5.1), it would be wrong to impose the obligation of filling the grave upon the minyan which attends the graveside services.