Jews do lots of different things surrounding burial, reflecting the variety of practice within the Jewish communities and differing opinions among denominations. The authors of the Bible note that Sarah and Abraham are buried above ground or in caves – not interned in the ground as is the common custom now. And even today many Jewish cemeteries provide mausoleums for burial as an option to families seeking an alternative to the traditional burial.
However, Deuteronomy teaches that “kavor tikbereynu – you shall surely bury them.” The rabbinic tradition interpreted this verse as a commandment to bury the deceased in the ground. A mausoleum does not meet that requirement. In fact, halahic scholars went to far as to say that even if someone leaves specific instructions in a will to be interned in a mausoleum, one must not fulfill the request. This is surprising given the strict requirement to fulfill the wishes of the dead.
Although mausoleums are not a normative practice within Jewish tradition, some Jews certainly choose them for burial. Mount Lebanon Cemetery in New York, West View Cemetery in Philadelphia and Brady Street Cemetery in London are just three well known examples of significant Jewish communities who have erected mausoleums for burial. In fact, the Brady Street Cemetery’s mausoleum was modeled on Rachel’s Tomb in Hebron and contains the remains of Moses Montefiore.
As is often the case, Jewish tradition is not of one mind. Jews do lots of different things around burial and find many different ways to grieve and memorialize the dead. The most important thing I as a rabbi can do is to educate folks about Jewish tradition and encourage them to make the decisions that are right for them and their loved ones.
The purpose of burial is to allow the body of the deceased to be disposed of in a way that in no way demeans what was the container of the Neshama (soul). Mausoleum “burial” does prevent the body from naturally decomposing and returning to the earth. Therefore one must first decide if internment in a mausoleum is for the benefit and honor of the dead, or a way for the living to hold on physically to the deceased. Where burial in a mausoleum is necessary for environmental conditions such as high water tables, it is permitted with the following proviso. According to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik only material whose essential ingredient is earth, such as concrete, may be used to bulid the mausoleum. Metal or plastics may not be used in the building of the mausoleum, since internment in any non-earth based structure would not be viewed as returning the body to the earth which defines Halachik (Jewish legal) burial.
The Jewish legal tradition, on the whole, prefers in-ground burial. Most rabbis consider Deuteronomy 21:23, which states that an unburied corpse is an affront to God, and Genesis 3:19, “for dust you are and to dust you shall return,” to be the sources of this practice. In death, one’s body must be allowed to decompose and return naturally to the earth. Because of these interpretations, the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 362:1) even calls for burial without a coffin. Some authorities allow coffins (especially when mandated by local law), but many insist that it be made of material that can decompose into the earth, and/or that holes must be drilled into its sides so that the earth can come into contact with the body.
It is tempting to argue that the widespread current Jewish practice of in-ground burial exists because of these biblical mandates. But careful analysis shows that those mandates are not so clear, and that the Bible is actually somewhat ambivalent on this issue. Consider:
The Bible does not explicitly detail any funeral or burial practices and does not clearly mandate in-ground burial.
The biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs are all interred in a cave.
Aaron and Moses, to name but a couple of other biblical figures, are interred on mountainsides. Isaiah 22:16 similarly refers to this practice of the dead being placed in a niche hewn from the rock on a mountainside.
Moreover, historical evidence shows that, in previous eras of Jewish history, it was common for Jews to be buried above ground:
According to Rabbi David Lincoln, in the late Second Temple period, Palestinian Jews placed corpses in caves without coffins; later in antiquity, Jews interred their dead above ground in stone coffins.
Above-ground burial was widely practiced by the Jewish communities of Italy, Tunisia, Libya, Asia Minor, and Egypt.
Two of the most famous ancient burial sites in the land of Israel, Sanhedria and Beit She’arim, are replete with stone coffins and above-ground interment.
It seems clear, then, that in-ground burial has not been the only historical Jewish practice. According to Rabbi Lincoln, it was only “when the center of Jewish life moved from Palestine to Babylonia” that the prevalent practice changed. This was probably because the Babylonian topography was more hospitable to in-ground burial. Seen this way, it is possible that the rabbis mandated in-ground burial to justify what people were already doing.
In doing so, though, the rabbis brought Jewish law and practice into better agreement with the values that were always inherent in the Torah (expressed by the verses cited above). True, the Torah may have allowed above-ground burial, but the rabbis rightly note that the Torah’s own internal values seem to frown on the practice. Though mausoleum burial does not technically seem to be forbidden by the Torah, the rabbis point out that it is, in actuality, an aberration of the Torah’s values.
In our time, it is more important than ever that we reaffirm the rabbis’ insight and insist, where possible, on in-ground burial.
I say this because, according to my teacher, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, many in our culture dangerously deny death and cower in fear of it. Mausoleum burial seems symptomatic of this fear and denial. Many choose to be interred in mausoleums because they see it as reverent, dignified, and beautiful. Having contact with dirt, or allowing one’s body to be consumed and ultimately decompose into the earth, seem ugly and degrading. “I would not tolerate being filthy or bug-infested in life,” people may say, “so why must I in death?”
The problem with this perspective is that it blinds us to the difficult but necessary realities of existence. We live as if we will live forever; even in death, we refuse to see ourselves as truly mortal. Because of this, we see the world, at best, as an unlimited resource to use only for our own benefit, and at worst, as an enemy we must hold back and overcome in order to secure our own immortality. Our insecurities and delusions about death threaten both our quality of life and our ability to properly function in the world.
Jewish burial practices – even if they do not have the pedigree of biblical law or ancient practice – serve as a corrective to this dangerous mentality. The rabbis developed burial rites to insist on an intimacy between the living and the dead. The corpse is bathed and clothed by volunteers, dressed in a plain white shroud, and buried directly in the ground. A Jew, having died, is to be embraced by the earth, and through this, the living commit to encountering life fully aware of the realities of mortality and the responsibilities it entails.
In Reform Judaism, there is no impediment to burial in a mausoleum. A responsum written in 1981 discussed this question. The conclusion was that, in earlier times in Jewish history, burial in caves (the ancient equivalent of a mausoleum) was common. Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah to be a family burial site. According to the Torah, that is where he is buried, along with Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah, and Leah. Kings in ancient Israel were buried in caves, and later sages were buried in tombs. Only later in Jewish history did it become the norm that burial in the ground was preferred, to ensure the deterioration of the body back to dust. Today, even many Orthodox authorities permit a completely closed coffin, so contact with the soil is no longer a strict requirement. For all these reasons, Reform Judaism would permit mausoleum interment.
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