Jewish Cemetery Rules and Guidelines Explained

Updated

As with many cultural or religious groups, Jewish people abide by a number of rules and guidelines when it comes to burying their loved ones.

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If you’re getting ready to purchase a plot for your loved one, planning to attend the funeral of a Jewish friend, or you simply want to visit a grave, read on. Understanding the rules and guidelines Jewish people abide by will help you follow the correct cultural and religious etiquette.

What’s a Jewish Cemetery?

In Jewish law, Jewish people are supposed to be buried on property owned by Jews. They also shouldn’t be buried in a mixed or non-Jewish cemetery if at all possible.

Jewish cemeteries serve the needs of Jewish communities by providing a kosher place for burial within the religious structure and observances required by Jewish law.

Who’s Allowed to Be Buried at a Jewish Cemetery?

According to Jewish law, non-Jews should not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. It might come as a surprise, but this rule applies to spouses, as well. In practice, Jewish cemeteries differ on this ruling.

Orthodox Jewish cemeteries will generally not allow the burial of a Jew and non-Jewish spouse in the cemetery. Reform Jewish cemeteries might allow the burial of non-Jewish spouses. Finally, some Jewish cemeteries will allow it as long as the non-Jewish spouse is buried a minimum of 72 inches away from any Jewish grave, including the grave of their spouse.

Jewish Cemetery Burial and Headstone Rules

When you combine Jewish rules, funeral traditions, and beliefs handed down through the years, you get very well-defined burial and headstone guidelines. Jewish burial and headstone etiquette share few similarities with western cultural traditions. Understanding these rules will prepare you when it comes time to bury your loved one or visit their grave.

As with most things in life, these rules are general in nature. You might find some Jewish cemeteries that make exceptions as noted below. You might also find some differences between Orthodox Jewish cemeteries and Reform Jewish cemeteries.

Husband and wives might be separated

Depending on the individual cemetery, Jewish husbands and wives might be buried side-by-side or they might be separated into a men’s and a women’s section.

Burial is to be in-ground

Above-ground mausoleums are not allowed by Jewish law. All Jews are to be buried in the ground. This is based on a verse from the Torah that reads, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19).

Burial should occur in such a way that the body can return to the ground as it decomposes. If above-ground burial is an absolute necessity, such as in New Orleans, the coffin should be filled with dirt and the mausoleum should enclose the grave.

The casket must be biodegradable

This is another rule that finds its roots in Genesis 3:19. Kosher caskets are made entirely from wood to allow the body to decompose and return to dirt.

Wood and other biodegradable caskets are appropriate for this process. There should be no metal, and all fabric inside the casket should be biodegradable, as well.

Graves face east

Traditionally, Jewish people prayed toward Jerusalem. This tradition continued when they were forced to flee their homeland and live in the diaspora. Today, in addition to praying facing east, graves are also positioned to face the east. 

A second belief also influences the positioning. According to the Torah, the Messiah will arrive on the Mount of Olives in Israel, and when he does, the dead will be resurrected. Graves face east so the deceased can rise to face Jerusalem.

Plots should not be purchased when someone is ill

Traditionally, Jewish family members are discouraged from purchasing a burial plot when their loved one is ill. It is thought that purchasing a plot during their disease will cause the sick person to give up hope and pass away sooner than they would have. This is tradition, however, and doesn’t go against Jewish law should you need to purchase a plot for your gravely ill loved one.

Traditionally, healthy people will purchase plots once a family member is buried to create a family burial area.

The deceased should not be embalmed 

Embalming prevents the deceased’s body from decomposing and returning to dust. Because of this, embalming is considered unkosher. 

Burial should occur soon after death

In the Torah, Jews are instructed to bury their loved ones the same day as they pass away.

Today, it’s acceptable for a burial to be delayed by a day or two to allow family members to fly in to attend the funeral. In general, however, no more than three days should pass between a person’s death and their burial. 

Burial shouldn’t occur on Saturday (Shabbat)

Shabbat occurs weekly from Friday at sunset and goes through Saturday at sunset. This is a day of rest where time is set aside for prayer, reading the scriptures, and spending quality time with family. Work, as such, is strictly prohibited during Shabbat. Burying someone is considered work and goes against the rules for Shabbat. 

Shabbat is also seen as a celebratory day. Just as you wouldn’t have a funeral during a wedding, burial is prohibited during Shabbat, for the same reason.

The deceased should not be disinterred

According to Jewish law, proper respect should always be shown for the dead. Disinterring someone’s body to move them is seen as disrespectful since unburied bodies are believed to suffer humiliation.

There are several exceptions to this rule, however. A Jewish person may be disinterred if:

  • A corpse is buried in a non-Jewish cemetery and is moved to a Jewish cemetery.
  • A corpse is moved to a family burial plot from a non-family plot.
  • A person wishes to be buried in Israel but burial immediately after death wasn’t possible.
  • A grave is unprotected and subject to vandalism or destruction via construction.

The grave has specific dimensions

Graves in a Jewish cemetery must be at least as wide and long as the coffin and at least 40” deep.

Cremated remains might be interred

Cremation is specifically prohibited for Jews. This is especially true of Orthodox followers. Some Reform rabbis have permitted cremation since the late 1800s based on the fact that the body can still return to dust. Orthodox rabbis, however, liken the burning of a body to the burning of a Torah scroll. 

A person who is intentionally cremated may not be allowed a burial place in an Orthodox Jewish cemetery but might find a place in a Reform Jewish cemetery.

Headstones are erected after a time of mourning

Generally, headstones are set up toward the end of the eleventh month of the first year of mourning. It is at this time that the headstone unveiling is held.

Headstones shouldn’t have human imagery

Headstones should be strictly free of any human imagery whether it be an outline or a laser-engraved picture.

This comes from a verse in the Torah forbidding idol worship. Though today idol worship has become less of an issue, the tradition continues and guidelines regarding headstone inscriptions prohibit images or drawings of people.

Headstones should be simple 

Since it’s believed that all people are equal at death, headstones are to be simple and reflect the type of headstones already present at the cemetery.

Decorative inscriptions should be kept to a minimum and headstones should be made of stone or granite.

Specific inscriptions should be made

Tombstones should have the inscription תנצב''ה, which translates to “May his (her) soul be bound in the binding of life.” Some people place פ"נ on the tombstone which means “Here is buried” above the inscription of the person’s name.

Inscriptions should be simple

Inscriptions should contain the person’s name, their father’s name, and the Hebrew date of their passing.

However, you shouldn’t inscribe an overly flowery description of their life, as it’s believed that they will have to give an account of what is written.

Jewish Cemetery Rules for Visitors

If you’re planning to visit a Jewish cemetery, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with several rules. The rules and practices written about below are typical of both Orthodox and Reform cemeteries.

Flowers should not be placed on graves

As opposed to most western grave flower etiquette, Jewish cemeteries generally discourage placing flowers on graves. This isn’t necessarily a rule in cemeteries,  but it is a tradition that is generally followed.

Flowers aren’t placed on graves because the dead are seen as equal. Placing flowers on one grave would elevate that person above the rest and potentially shame a poorer person unable to purchase flowers for their loved one.

Place a pebble or small stone on the grave/headstone

If you want to leave a token that you visited a grave, place a small pebble or stone on the person’s headstone or their grave. This is a tradition that can be found dating back to Bible times.

Men wear a head covering

In Jewish law, men are to wear a head covering called a Yarmukah to demonstrate their submission to God in public gatherings.

Because funerals and other things in public places are considered public gatherings, men should wear these when visiting a Jewish cemetery.

There is no eating or smoking 

In the Torah, there is a verse that says, “Whoever mocks the poor blasphemes God” (Proverbs 17:5).

The dead are traditionally considered to be poor, and since they can no longer eat or smoke, doing so would be considered a mockery of the poor. 

Ritual items are not brought

Ritual items such as Torah scrolls and phylacteries are not brought into the cemetery.

The reasoning for this is the same reasoning that applies to the prohibition against eating and smoking. The dead can’t perform the commandments that are associated with these ritual items, so bringing them into the cemetery would be a mockery of the deceased.

Honoring Culture, Religion, and Tradition

Where and how to bury your loved one is an important part of honoring their religious and cultural traditions. Whether you are an observant Jew or not, we hope this article provides a little more insight into the way things are done at Jewish cemeteries. 


Sources:
  1. Goldstein, Zalman. “Cemetery, Grave, and Tombstone in Judaism.” The Jewish Funeral, Chabad.org, August 2012. Chabad.org
  2. “Guide to Jewish Cemetery.” Funerals, Congregation B’Nai Tikvah Beth Israel, 2016. cbtbi.org

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