The Talmud Yerushalmi (Kil’ayim, 9) tells of two Rabbis who were walking together and observed a series of coffins being transported to Israel for burial. One Rabbi sharply criticized this practice, accusing those bringing the coffins of "defiling" the Land of Israel. Rather than coming to live in the Holy Land, these individuals chose to live outside Israel, and have their remains brought there only after their passing. This Rabbi felt that such a practice is improper, and those who live outside Israel but instruct that their remains should be brought there after their passing are guilty of defiling the land.
This is the view of the Zohar, which condemns in very strong terms those who live outside Israel and ask to have their remains brought to Israel after their death. The Zohar writes that although Yaakob Abinu did precisely that – spending his final years in Egypt, and instructing Yosef to bring his body to Hebron for burial – he marked an exception. The Shechina (Divine Presence) always accompanied Yaakob, and so his remains did not bring impurity to the Land of Israel. Generally, though, according to the Zohar, this is forbidden.
However, the Yerushalmi cites a different opinion, that of Rabbi Elazar, who remarked that if somebody’s remains are brought to Israel for burial, then, as the verse says in Debarim (32:43), "Ve’chiper Admato Amo" – the ground of Israel brings him atonement. Of course, it is preferable to live in Israel, but even if one did not live in Israel, if his remains are brought there for burial, he achieves atonement. This remark is cited by the Rambam (Rav Moshe Maimonides, Spain-Egypt, 1135-1204), in Hilchot Melachim.
This view also appears in the Gemara, in Masechet Ketubot, which tells that Ula, a great sage who used to travel back and forth from Babylonia to Israel, died in Babylonia. When one of the Rabbis heard of Ula’s passing, he felt distressed that a sage of Ula’s stature died outside the Land of Israel. However, this Rabbi was then comforted when he learned that Ula’s body was being transported to Israel for burial. This clearly indicates that it is beneficial for a person who died outside Israel to be buried in Israel.
Accordingly, the Shulhan Aruch rules that a person’s remains may be brought to Israel for burial, and that a person’s remains may even be exhumed to be transported and reinterred in Israel. This is, of course, the accepted Halacha.
However, the Poskim debate the question of whether a person’s remains may be exhumed and reinterred in Eretz Yisrael if he had never made such a request. Hacham Ovadia Yosef addresses this question in a landmark responsum written after a Rabbi in London proposed bringing the remains of Sir Moses Montefiore from England to Israel for reburial on Har Ha’zetim (the Mount of Olives) in Jerusalem. It was believed that as Sir Moses Montefiore – arguably the greatest philanthropist of all time – did so much for the Jews and for the rebuilding of the Land of Israel, it was appropriate for him to have the privilege of burial in Jerusalem. Hacham Ovadia fervently supported the idea, agreeing that Sir Moses Montefiore deserved this special privilege. By contrast, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Russia-New York, 1895-1986) ruled that since Sir Moses Montefiore specifically requested to be buried in Ramsgate, England, his remains may not be moved. Rav Moshe maintained that a body may be exhumed for reburial in Israel only if the deceased himself, or his child, requested it. Otherwise, a body may not be moved. Rav Moshe added that bringing Montefiore’s remains to Jerusalem for reburial would be disrespectful to the many other righteous figures who are buried outside Israel and are not given this special honor.
A precedent for exhuming a righteous person’s remains for reburial in Israel is the reburial of the Hid"a (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806). The Hid"a died and was buried in Livorno, Italy, and in 1960, his remains were brought to Jerusalem’s Har Ha’menuhot cemetery for reburial. Rav Mordechai Eliyahu (1929-2010) accompanied the Hid"a’s remains from the airport to Jerusalem. He wanted to ensure that the bones were properly arranged, but he felt that it would be disrespectful to touch the bones of the holy Sadik. Rav Mordechai Eliyahu announced to the Hid"a that if any of the bones were out of place, he – the Hid"a – would need to rearrange them himself. Suddenly, the table started to shake. A number of people in the room fainted. (Rav Mordechai Eliyahu would eventually be buried right next to the Hid"a on Har Ha’menuhot.)
There is also a practice when burying outside Eretz Yisrael to place some earth from Eretz Yisrael in the grave. It is said that the Noda Bi’yehuda (Rav Yehezkel Landau of Prague, 1713-1793) asked to have this done at his burial, and Hacham Yaakob Kasin (1900-1994) would recommend placing earth from Israel with the deceased in his grave.
Summary: Transporting one’s remains to the Land of Israel for burial – and even exhuming one’s remains for reburial in Israel – is considered beneficial and a privilege for the deceased. Some Poskim maintained that a body may be exhumed for reburial in Israel only if the deceased or his child requested it, whereas others maintained that this may be done even if no such request was made.