I am a retired military officer who is eligible for burial in Arlington National Cemetery. I would like to be buried in Arlington Cemetery because I believe that it is important to demonstrate that Jews helped defend the US by serving in uniform. However, I understand that there are some Jewish rules (no burial in a mixed-religion cemetery, burial within 24 hours of death) that are not compatible with the procedures for burial in Arlington Cemetery, although there are quite a few Jews buried there. What is the basis for these burial restrictions - custom, tradition, law, etc? Is it a sin for a Jew to be buried in Arlington Cemetery? [NOTE: I was raised in the Conservative tradition, but I am not particularly observant at present]
These laws are a mixture of customs traditions and laws. They are strongly held and violation does take one out the tradition. I live in DC and know that it is all but impossible to be buried in Arlington and keep the traditions, but military aspects such as use of the flag to cover the coffin can be used at a Jewish cemetery that won't violate anything and might meet your need to show respect for youe military service.
Answered by: Rabbi --- Not Active with JVO Suspended
First of all, thank you for your service to our country. I am proud to be able to respond to one who has earned the privilege of being buried at Arlington.
Second, I must admit that the issues that this question raises were not anticipated by the sages of our tradition! Therefore, if I offer a complicated answer, it is because it is a complicated question. I can also foresee that there may be differences among the denominations with this answer.
The reason for the separation of the graves of non-Jews and Jews are primarily motivated by matters of sanctity and respect due to the individual his or her loved ones, i.e., that the plot is treated with sanctity, the burial is done with proper Jewish rites, and maintained with respect. Historically, these were concerns for our ancestors. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that our tradition rules that the separation between Jewish and non-Jewish graves is important and burial together (as it is done at Arlington) would be prohibited.
That all said, in the event that someone elects to be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery – post-facto – such a burial would not be considered as a sin and it would be sanctified with proper Jewish burial rites by a Conservative rabbi “for the sake of peace” (B. Talmud, Gittin 61a).
I should also mention that I have had the honor of officiating at several Jewish military funerals at Jewish cemeteries. These funerals have been among the most meaningful that I have known and full military honors and rites have been present.
Thank you for your service to our country. Your question reflects a dilemma felt by many who serve proudly in the military. In a 2007 article in the Washington Jewish Week Rabbi Marvin Bush, one of two rabbis under contract with Arlington National Cemetery, states that “service during war for many has been an overarching experience in their [veterans] lives…They want to be recognized for their service, and that comes from being buried in a military cemetery." Nonetheless, as Rabbi Freundel and Rabbi Steinberg have noted, the burial procedures at Arlington National Cemetery do not accord with traditional Jewish burial practices. If you wish a fully traditional Jewish burial, then it seems you would need to opt for a funeral with military honors held at a Jewish cemetery.
It is worth noting, however, that the chaplaincy commission of the National Jewish Welfare Board, a group composed of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, issued a Responsa in Wartime in 1947 (reprinted in 1968) that sanctioned burial in a non-denominational cemetery like Arlington National Cemetery. (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/wartime.htm) They noted that in Talmudic times there was no requirement to establish a separate Jewish cemetery. “The only requirements in the law as to place of burial are that a man be buried in his own property (B'toch Shelo) (b. Baba Bathra 112a), and that we may not bury a wicked man next to a righteous man (b. Sanhedrin 47a).” The Responsa in Wartime concludes: “Therefore, it can at most be said only that it is against general custom (minhag) for a Jew to be buried elsewhere than in a Jewish cemetery but it cannot be said that such burial is forbidden. Therefore, it is suggested that each family ask its own rabbi for his decision. The rabbi will then decide also whether he will officiate.”
Should you choose burial at Arlington National Cemetery you will be in good company. Jewish veterans have opted to be buried there since the days of the Civil War. As of December, 1995, there were 1,996 Jews buried in that hallowed ground, among them two rabbis, two ambassadors, one Supreme Court justice, and one astronaut.
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