QUESTION: Is it appropriate for the cremains of a husband and a wife to be mingled in one urn? (Rabbi Jonathan Brown, Youngstown OH)
ANSWER: Reform Jewish practice permits cremation. This matter was discussed at some length a century ago (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #100). In a note to that responsum added a decade ago, the committee stated that although we permit cremation we would, after the Holocaust, generally discourage it because of the tragic overtones. Orthodox Jews would, bediavad, generally bury cremains although they would not consider this an obligation (David Hoffmann Melamed Lehoil Yoreh Deah 113; S. Deutsch Or Hamet; etc).
In this instance, however, the husband and wife wish their ashes to be intermingled. This raises a whole series of questions. It is unlikely that the husband and wife will die at the same time. This means that one set of ashes may remain unburied for a considerable period or it would be necessary to disturb the buried ashes later. It is not permitted to disturb a grave once burial has taken place and it would make no difference whether we are dealing with cremains or a buried body. Exhumation is only permitted under very special circumstances, as for example when a cemetery can no longer receive proper care or has been condemned or when certain legal matters must be determined (Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen Keneset Yehezkel Even Haezer 46; I. Fleckeles Shivat Zion #64; S. B. Freehof Current Reform Responsa #37). Solomon B. Freehof also provided some additional reasons.
It would be acceptable to bury the two urns close to each other as tradition only requires six handbreadth between bodies buried side by side, and three handbreadth if they are buried on top of each other. This became necessary in the crowded cemeteries of Central Europe as in Prague. This solution of burial side by side or with one urn on top of the other would be acceptable if it is in accordance with congregational cemetery policy. The ashes should, however, not be intermingled.