Stacked Bodies- Acceptable According to Jewish Law? by Isaac Pollak

An article appeared in the British press regarding the Banwell cemetery in Somerset which after a long existence is running out of space.

The possible solution: Coffins to be stacked four deep just inches from the churchyard surface ; bodies would be dug up and reburied in deeper ground and the names of the newly buried person would be added to the headstone.( 1)

The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Muslim Council of Britain have all confirmed that such burials would not conflict with religious rulings.

Rabbi J. Romain, of the Maidenhead Synagogue in Berks said that in the Jewish community there is a general reluctance to disturb the dead but if there is nowhere else to bury the newly dead then space must be maximized for future generations.

 

Every year some 35,000 Jews are buried in Israel, about a tenth in Jerusalem and they are running out of space. One solution to the growing shortage of land has been multi story burial buildings, in which bodies are buried in niches in the walls. Thus allows bodies to be “stacked” on top of each other, while also ensuring that each has its own distinct grave. While many Rabbis have given their approbation to such burials, there is still an argument over whether Jewish law permits this form of burial. Rabbis from the “Lithuanian” community –  the non–Hasidic branch of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jewry –  claim it doesn’t, so Jews from this community can’t be buried in this fashion. Moreover, because the practice is culturally unfamiliar, others object to their loved ones being buried in multi-story buildings. However in stacked burial under a tunnel all the graves are underground so just about all agree that this complies with Jewish law. In fact, tunnel burials were common back in the days of the Talmudic sages, some 2000 years ago.

Space between bodies:

A general Jewish principal is that we don’t bury the dead next to one another either horizontally or vertically unless there is a separation of at least six handbreadths between one body and the next.

A handbreadth is a Hebrew Linear measurements space equal to the breadth of a hand, i.e., defined as the palm, usually 2 ½ to 4 inches (2)

There is a series of responsa going back to the mid 1700”s; when cemeteries became crowded and the issue arose how much space must be left between graves. This became quite urgent when local law didn’t allow Jewish cemeteries to expand.

So, questions arose: can the requirement of 6 handbreadths be eased and less space used? May one body be buried in the same grave over another or very close to another body? If so how much space must be provided between the coffins?

All these responsum cited (3) below reflect an important principle in Jewish legal tradition; namely the validity of popular custom. Any well-established custom is to be respected especially if its an old custom in a community which has had rabbinic leaders.

Most responsa conclude that according to the letter of the law six handbreadths (approximately 24 inches) is needed to separate bodies whether stacked one on top of another or next to each other. However, if it’s difficult or limited a separation of 3 handbreadths would suffice. (4) Generally, scholars are lenient when there is no other way and when there is no other choice.

Concludes Rabbi Jacob Reischer of Metz in Shevut Yaakov, 11:95. ( Metz, France 1661-1733) “All the laws of space between graves are for the purpose of avoiding shame to the dead and showing respect to the deceased, “Kovod Hamas”. As long as a community does what it possibly can to adhere to honoring the deceased in the most respectable way possible it is acceptable to follow traditions and not follow the strict adherence to the law.

Kol Bo Aviluth by Rabbi J. Greenwald (5) lists many sources and communities that allowed burials one on top another without six handbreadths. He quotes that in Paris the tradition was to put rocks between graves and if rocks are used then 6 handbreadths are not necessary; they are only necessary if earth is used.

To summarize: when it is in time of need (Tzorach Shao) and if there is an established precedent to allow less than the required 6 handbreadth separation; then local tradition may be followed or one should utilize guidelines that maximize respect for the deceased. However in the classic Gesher HaChaim, a two volume work written in 1947 by Rabbi Dashinski, he rules that in time of need as little as the breath of six fingers is acceptable.

 Kovod Hamas trumps established halacha.

In a small CK book published in Djerba, Tunisia in the 1930’s, they insist that the average full height of a person should be the depth of the grave. The reasoning is that right after the burial four angels come to the grave site, give the deceased a soul and breath, raise the dead person, and beat him with sticks to get rid of the grave dust on him, and therefore they need space to stand him up, so burial one on top of another is absolutely not allowed. (Yosef Shaul), See below.

Taharah Manual, Djerba Tunisia, 1930s
Taharah Manual, Djerba Tunisia, 1930s, first page
Taharah Manual, Djerba Tunisia, 1930s
Taharah Manual, Djerba Tunisia, 1930s  second page

Another issue to contend with:

Whom may be stacked on top of whom?

There is a principal elucidated in the Y’D’ 362:63 that two people who were halachically allowed to be in seclusion with one another when alive may be buried together when deceased.

So, a man and wife, mother and daughter, father and daughter, mother and son, etc. can be buried next to each other or on top of each oethr and even in the same grave. However when there is a wall of at least 3 handbreadths separation there seems to be less of an issue and we are lenient for even those who are not permitted by the law of seclusion (Yichud) (Huri Basimin 221 and Shaari Shamyim Y’D’ :33). However, a distinction is made if it’s next to each other when it’s possible the graves may cave in, or whether it’s one on top of another when there is no issue of a cave in. Rabbi Simeon Duran of Palma de Majorca and Algiers in the 15th century ruled that if it’s next to each, other we should always scrupulously observe the full six handbreadths.

There seems to be very little in the literature or in the responsa on how deep one may go and how many may be stacked; the discussions revolve around 2 bodies stacked one on top another. I have found no reference to three, four, or more bodies . Perhaps it was considered too deep to be of consideration. However, if one reads the responsa one could surmise that the same guidelines would apply to as many bodies as is possible to stack.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Coffin sizes vary and the deeper the grave the more unstable the earth becomes and collapses in on itself. These are issues that need to be resolved .

(2) Exodus 25:25;37:12;1 kings 7:26 and many more

(3) The Sha’agat Aryeh of Metz, Northern France addressed this issue in his questions and answers responsum on the Orach Chaim. Additionally Rabbi Isaac of Lemberg, the Bet Yitchak ( Yoreah deah #153 ) also addressed this issue extensively.

These issues were also addressed by Rabbi Isaac of Lemberg, in his six volume Beit Yitzhak written 1875-1908 ( Yoreah Deah #153) .

The most comprehensive permitted relaxations of the law are enumerated by Rabbi Abraham Danzig ( Lithuania 1748-1820) in his Chochmat Adam ; Matzevet Moshe #10.

(4) first noted according to Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (the Tashbetz of Algiers and Palma 15th century ) and quoted in the Beit Yosef Yora Deah 362.

(5) Columbus, Ohio 1888-1955) Chapter 3 Siman 22

 

Six Feet Under- where does this come from?

While exploring this issue I often came across the nomenclature,” six feet under” and did a bit of research on its origination.

It was during the great Plague of London in 1665 that the origin of the idiom” six feet under” came to be. The Bubonic plague dead reached 8000 per week and many believed that this was due to the shallow graves that bodies were buried in. In an effort to limit the outbreak, the Lord Mayor of London enacted a mandate that all graves be dug a minimum of six feet.

This was ineffective as it wasn’t the disease that spread the plague but rather infected fleas.

The law fell into disuse, but by the 19th century medical science had seen a huge increase in the use of human cadavers for teaching purposes. This increasing demand led to a shortage of corpses and grave robbing became a very lucrative business as bodies were buried within 6 inches of the surface. The law then reverted to the old standard of being buried six feet deep.

Most US States require just a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket.

 

Isaac Pollak, portrait, relaxed, informal
Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, and has been doing Taharot for about 4 decades. He is fascinated by and a student of customs and history concerning the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish burial and mourning rituals. He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student, participant, and lecturer in Gamliel Institute courses. He has offered blogs to Expired And Inspired periodically.

 

 

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Expired and Inspired is Kavod V’Nichum’s blog on all matters relating to life end, death, funerals, and comfort. 

The topic of death and dying has long been a taboo subject. Because death comes to all of us, and touches almost all of us in our life, we feel that it needs to be open for conversation and learning – not necessarily in a morbid fashion: there are aspects of this part of life that are beautiful and touching. Our view is that the death of a loved one is sad, but the sacred, holy work in which we engage in this arena can be spiritual, loving, transformative, and life-affirming. Talking about it should not be ‘taboo’ or avoided. There is even room, at times, for humor, as well as awe, love, and honor, as we explore this universal part of life.

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We are not limited other than by what our authors choose to cover.

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Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”) uses education and advocacy to empower Jews of all backgrounds to reclaim the mitzvot (“commandments” or “good deeds”) of honoring the dead. The organization ensures that local groups and congregations can support mourners through traditional Jewish activities and rituals in ways that are accessible and relevant to today’s Jewish community. Kavod v’Nichum helps the Jewish community engage with traditional practices while giving individuals the information they need to adapt those traditions in their own meaningful ways.

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