Halacha » Parasha » Search » Subscribe » More »
Brought to you under the direction of The Edmond J Safra Synagogue

The Obligation to Bury the Deceased

There is a Torah obligation to bury a deceased person, as the verse states in the Book of Debarim (21:23), "Ki Kabor Tikbirenu" ("for you shall surely bury him"). This obligation is fulfilled only by placing the deceased in the ground. If one placed the body in a coffin without placing the coffin inside the ground, the Misva remains unfulfilled.

It is preferable for the body to be placed in the ground directly, and not in a coffin, so that the body touches the ground, in fulfillment of the curse to Adam, "for you are earth, and you shall return to earth" (Bereshit 3:19). This is, indeed, the practice in Eretz Yisrael. In other countries, however, civil law requires burying in a coffin, and the custom is therefore to remove the bottom slat of the coffin, so that at least part of the body will be buried directly in the earth. Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kilayim, chapter 9) records that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi wrote in his will that he should be buried in a "pierced coffin." The Tur (Halachic code by Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher, Spain, 1275-1349) explained this as referring to the removal of the bottom part of the coffin. Some also have the custom to pour some earth into the coffin.

The obligation of burial applies even to severed limbs and pieces of flesh that have been separated from the body. Strictly speaking, only pieces of flesh measuring a Kezayit or more require burial. In truth, however, even smaller pieces should be buried, due to the Halachic uncertainty surrounding the issue. Therefore, all detached limbs and pieces of flesh must be respectfully collected and brought to burial.

If a part of one’s body was removed during his lifetime, it should preferably be buried. Thus, for example, if a person undergoes an amputation, Heaven forbid, the amputated limb should be buried. If a person feels uneasy about having a part of his body buried during his lifetime, the alternative is to instruct people to preserve the body part until his death and then bury it with the body. This suggestion is made by Rav Haim Palachi (Turkey, 1788-1869), in his work Haim Be’yad.

The obligation of burial applies even in cases of stillborns and miscarriages, Heaven forbid, especially if this occurred after a complete pregnancy.

If a person instructed his family before his death to cremate his remains, rather than bury them, his request should not be obeyed; he should be buried despite his request. If a person’s body was cremated, the ashes may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. If, however, a person’s body was burned during a fire, or by enemies, then the ashes should be placed in an earthenware container and buried in a Jewish cemetery, but not together with other deceased persons.

It is customary to bury Kohanim at the edge of the cemetery, near the fence, so that the family members – who are forbidden from entering cemeteries – can visit the grave without entering the cemetery.

It is permissible to inject chemicals into a deceased body to decelerate the process of decomposing if the body is being transported overseas for burial. This is the ruling of Rav Shemuel Wosner (contemporary), in his work Shebet Halevi (vol. 5, Siman 188).

(Based on Rav Shemuel Pinhasi’s work Haim Va’hesed)

Summary: There is a Torah obligation to bury all remains of a deceased person in the ground. Ideally, the body should be buried directly. If civil law requires burying in a coffin, then a coffin should be used but the bottom slat should be removed. Even detached limbs and pieces of flesh must be buried. It is forbidden to cremate a body even if the deceased had requested so during his lifetime. Ashes from a cremated body may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but if a person was burned in a fire or by enemies, the ashes are placed in an earthenware vessel and then buried in a cemetery. Injections to slow the process of decaying may be used if the body is being transported overseas for burial.