CCAR RESPONSA

Two caskets in one grave

5751.8

She'elah

Recently I was asked by the management of a local Jewish cemetery if double-depth lawn crypt-burials are permitted under Jewish law. In this method of burial, a casket is lowered into a concrete lined grave several feet deeper than normal. The casket, however, is completely surrounded by earth which has been inserted into the vault. Subsequently, a second casket is buried over the first, with a layer of earth between them.

We are interested in three aspects of this method of burial.

1. Are double-depth burials (one casket over another) permissible?

2. Is crypt-burial surrounded by earth permissible?

3. Are there significant differences of opinion among the major branches of Judaism on this subject? (This particular cemetery presently serves all three branches of Judaism.)

A sketch of the proposed burial method is enclosed. (Rabbi Allan C. Tuffs, Allentown, PA)

Teshuvah

The Halakhah of burial in the earth is derived from Deut. 21:23, which prescribes interment for executed criminals, and from this the Talmud derives the obligation to bury every dead person.1

We will deal first with the question of burying caskets on top of each other.

The traditional literature deals with bodies which are placed one above the other. The relevant passage is found in the Shulchan Arukh and reads: "Two caskets are not buried one over the other, but when six handbreadths of earth separate them it is allowed."2 The Hoop Lane cemetery in London, England, which serves both a Reform and an Orthodox Sefardi constituency, permits double and triple depth burials.

What if these bodies and caskets are placed for burial in a vault (here called "crypt")3, a custom which is widespread in North America? Does such a vault present a problem? R. Jekuthiel Greenwald says it does and forbids it, because the vault compares to a mausoleum which is seen to delay or possibly prevent decay and thus be unmindful of the implications of the Deuteronomic passage which says, "You shall surely bury him (kavor tikberenu).4 But R. Moshe Feinstein (who forbids mausoleum burial5) would allow the vault, because it is not designed to, nor does it, interfere with the process of decomposition, especially when the body is surrounded by earth.6

We hold with the latter opinion. The use of cement casings does not interfere with the purpose of interring the body, that is, returning it to the earth. It is merely the way by which many cemetery authorities prevent the ground from sinking, so that the appearance of the burial grounds is not marred and the honor paid to the dead (kevod ha-met) is not diminished. However, as indicated, the use of the vault might be contested by some halakhic authorities.

The sketch submitted to us reveals an additional feature, in that two caskets are buried in the same casing, one on top of the other, with layers of earth surrounding each casket. This too does not represent any obstacle in our view or in the traditional Halakhah.

Are there additional considerations which we might bring to bear on these issues? With cemetery space becoming scarce in many, especially larger communities, we would consider burials in a single plot, with due separation of the caskets, an acceptable alternative. Also, this would better enable survivors to carry out the mitzvah of visiting the graves of their dear ones.7

Notes

  1. BT Sanhedrin 46 b.
  2. Yoreh De'ah, #262:4. Similarly Tur , Yoreh De'ah, # 262. Rambam, Yad, Hilkhot Avel 14:16, discourages the practice, apparently because of the danger that the earth separating the two bodies might not prevent the upper body from sinking and coming too close to the other; see the commentary of the Radbaz on the passage, and R. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, Y.D. # 233/234. See also R. Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Jewish Practice, vol I, pp. 123 ff.; Current Reform Responsa, p.148.
  3. Usually a cement casing.
  4. Kol Bo al Avelut, vol. 2, pp. 47 ff.
  5. Iggerot Moshe, Y.D. # 143. On this issue see R. Walter Jacob, American Reform Responsa , # 102.
  6. Iggerot Moshe, Y.D., # 142.
  7. On mausoleum burials, see Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Responsa, no. 38.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.