New American Reform Responsa

189. Unmarked Graves

QUESTION: At the Jewish community cemetery in Winston Salem, Mt. Sinai Cemetery, a new grave was being dug this past spring in an area in which the maps, in the possession of the Cemetery Committee, indicated that no one was buried. However, an old unmarked grave existed there. How should this old grave be marked and what should be done with that grave and the area around it? (Rabbi Thomas P. Liebschutz, Winston-Salem NC)

ANSWER: We know from Scriptural sources that markers were erected over graves even when the specific person buried there was not known (Gen 38.20; II K 23.17; Ez 39.15). The reference in Ezekiel was taken by the Mishnah (M K 5a) to indicate that grave markers represented a continuous tradition since Biblical times. Yet some doubt about this was shown by the statement in Sheqalim which stated that graves were marked with a white plaster like substance on the first of Elul annually. This was done so that priests would not inadvertently come in contact with the grave and defile themselves (M Sheqalim 1.1). However, another section of the Mishnah stated that sums of money which remained after a funeral could be used for a permanent grave marker (2.5). We also have a statement about the earlier Simon, the Maccabee, who built a rather elaborate tomb (I Mac 13.27 ff). This may have been done because of his position as a ruler. Whatever uncertainties exist about the earlier period by Talmudic times, grave markers were commonly used (Hor 13b; San 96b; J Sheq 47a). These tombstones undoubtedly served a dual purpose: they honored the deceased and warned the priests away from this site of potential uncleanliness (M K 1.2, etc). In the later tradition tombstones became mandatory (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 348.2; Even Haezer 89.1; Greenwald Kol Bo al Avelut 370 ff). By the nineteenth century this minhag had become universal and was considered an essential part of each funeral (Abraham Benjamin Sofer Ketav Sofer Yoreh Deah 178).

In this instance there has been an interment, but the deceased is now unknown, therefore, a simple tombstone should be erected with a traditional inscription. This would be appropriate even though we do not know whether the grave is that of a Jew or a Christian. The fact that the individual is unknown should not disturb us. After all, names on many older tombstones have become illegible. The stone, itself, reminds us that someone is buried there and that we should treat this area with respect.

September 1987

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