In Judaism burial is an inalienable right and rite that cannot be denied even the worst criminal. Burial is predicated on the verse in the Torah (Genesis 3:19) that requires returning to earth what was originally created from the earth. But the laws regarding burial were legislated by the rabbis. From what we may gather from a variety of sources is that, according to the rabbis, the same differences between Jews and non-Jews we uphold in life continue even after death. Thus, while we have an obligation to look after the burial of non-Jews if there is no one else to look after the burial (Gittin 61a), we do not bury them together with Jews (RaShI ad. loc. and RaShBA).
Aside from some exceptions, like the burial of fallen Jewish soldiers among their non-Jewish comrades, the attitude remains that Jews and non-Jews are buried separately.
A question such as this, questioning the importance of burial in a Jewish cemetery, seems to be unnecessary. Why would anyone question the primacy of one’s final resting place to be within the context of their covenant with their God and with their people?
We often hear of individuals saying that they wish to be buried next to their spouse or their parents. By way of extension, burial with one’s community or faith group makes perfect sense.
By way of humor, in my earliest days in the U. S. Navy, I was told that a particular patient was “Presbyterian, for burial purposes, only.” This, of course, was to highlight that the particular individual was not living in accordance with the precepts of his/her religion, but found it important to be identified with their faith group upon their passing.
One does not have to be Presbyterian to find meaning in identification with values that they ideally cherish, but find too demanding to bother with during their lifetime. This is obtains in Judaism as well.
Nonetheless, the question of Jewish burial is a question and is well rooted in our earliest Jewish sources.
The Torah innocently relates a happening that is fraught with future implications. It involves Abraham, the Father of the Jewish People and his wife Sarah. “Sarah had lived to be 127 years old. [These were] the years of Sarah's life. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, also known as Hebron, in the land of Canaan. Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her. Abraham rose from beside his dead, and he spoke to the Hittites. ‘I am an immigrant and a resident—ger v’toshav among you,’ he said. ‘Sell me property for a burial place with you so that I can bury my dead, [and not have her here] right in front of me.’ “(Genesis 23)
The crucial question for Judaism, starting with the Patriarchs, was one of belonging. No longer to be a wanderer, an immigrant, but to be a permanent resident or citizen.
The first Jewish settlers in America coming from Brazil in 1654 first purchased land as a Jewish cemetery in New Amsterdam (New York). Only later did they set about the business of purchasing land for a worship space. These Sephardic Jews called themselves, Shearith Israel (the Remnant of Israel). Having a proper Jewish burial place was more important than any other concern for their new community.
A Jewish cemetery is referred euphemistically to as a Beth Hayyim (house of life) and Beth Olam (house of eternity). This is dedicated, sacred ground. Only members of our B’rit (Covenant) are privileged to be admitted.
Reverence and holiness are attached to the concept of a Jewish cemetery. Those individuals chosen to prepare the Jewish deceased for burial are referred to in Aramaic as Hevra Kaddisha (holy burial society).
Everything surrounding the preparations for burial and burial are handled with the utmost dignity and seriousness.
When it comes to matters pertaining to the deceased, Judaism excels and others often follow our lead trying to emulate our practices and traditions.
Yes, indeed, burial in a Jewish cemetery is exceedingly important and hallowed in our Jewish traditions.
The standards for burial are derived from the examples set by our patriarchs in the book of Genesis. When Abraham buried Sarah (Genesis 23) he took care to assure that her burial place would be a site dedicated that would remain accessible to their family for generations to come. Indeed, the Cave of Machpelah serves as the burial site for Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Only Rahel, who died on the road, is not buried in the family plot. In the next generation, Joseph asks that his bones be disinterred and brought from Egypt during the Exodus so he too might be buried at Machpelah.
One’s first obligation is to see to the timely burial of those who have died (Deuteronomy 21). Early Talmudic accounts indicate that the dead were buried b’tokh shelo, on their own property, indicating the importance of having a burial plot that was owned by the individual or the family. These sites may or many not have been formal “Jewish” cemeteries.
The custom of maintaining a separate Jewish cemetery is so strong that in many new communities the cemetery is established and consecrated even before a synagogue is chartered. Nonetheless there are times when a separate Jewish cemetery is not available. In those cases the practice is to find some way to designate that plot as a Jewish grave. There are various ways to mark the grave site, including: a surrounding wall, planting shrubbery around the site, or Hebrew inscriptions on the tombstone. There is a ritual to designate this site as consecrated earth which would create a small Jewish burial site in a larger general cemetery; this would be in keeping with traditional practice.
In sum, there is a strong and abiding preference for burial to take place in ground consecrated for Jewish burial. If, however, the choice is made for burial in a general cemetery there is nothing to preclude a rabbi from officiating at the service.
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