Machpelah – Why (or if) it Matters

Our parashah the last week of the secular year was Va-y’chi, whose major components are Jacob’s blessings, first of Manasseh and Ephraim, and then of his own sons, but especially the concerns of both Joseph and Jacob that they not be buried in Egypt. This preoccupation with the place of burial particularly haunted me, because of an unhappy juxtaposition with circumstances in my own life. In recent weeks, my family dedicated a monument at the grave of my 100- year-old mother-in-law, and less than a month later, we were back at the cemetery, selecting a gravesite for my son Aaron, who had died suddenly at age 48. Final resting places were thus doubly thrust into my consciousness, and my preoccupation as I have studied Va-y’chi has centered on why it matters, both to the living and to the dying, where our physical remains spend eternity.

As a Reform Jew, with no belief in an afterlife and with no personal minhag of regularly visiting the graves of my dear ones, I recognize this as an important subject, which we talk about rarely. Perhaps the juxtaposition of this parashah during the dying days of the secular year can stimulate some discussion on why it matters so much – since clearly, from the death of Sarah and Abraham’s negotiations for the Cave of Machpelah, to today, it does.

To learn more about what Reform Judaism has to say about death and burial, I turned, of all places, to Jewish Living, the definitive guide to contemporary Reform practice, by our leading contemporary posek, decisor, Rabbi Mark Washofsky. Rabbi Washofsky always discusses contemporary Reform practice against the background of halachah and Jewish practice over the centuries. Perhaps surprisingly, he suggests that the concept of a Jewish cemetery is more a matter of minhag, custom, than of din, halachic law. Halachah demands that we own our individual grave-sites, but it is time-honored minhag that dictates that those grave-sites be clustered with other Jewish graves, whether in a “Jewish cemetery” or a Jewish section, separated at least by a hedge, in a non-sectarian cemetery.

The importance to individual Jews of having an appropriate place to bury their dead is demonstrated by observing that, as Jews settled in America, the cemetery was typically the first Jewish communal institution to be organized, ahead of the synagogue. Thus the concept of spending eternity in a Jewish neighborhood may be classified as an inheritance from Father Abraham, reinforced by his grandson and great-grandson, an inheritance we have cherished and maintained.

Despite the precedent of the Cave of Machpelah, which provides the primary justification for encryption in mausoleums, and the prevalence of mausoleums in Jewish cemeteries, Washofsky is mildly negative about them, pointing out that over the centuries, in-ground interment has been normative, and most conducive to returning the body to the earth.

On cremation, the third option for the disposal of remains, Washofsky is somewhat wishy-washy. Characterizing it as “certainly contrary” to Jewish tradition, he nonetheless finds justifications for the practice, pointing out that there is no actual prohibition in the halachic literature, that it rapidly achieves the decomposition of the body, and offers ecological benefits. One of the major points of opposition to cremation in non-Reform Judaism is that it denies faith in the resurrection of the body – and I can envision doctrinaire rabbis of the early Classical Reform era encouraging it, just to make the point that we expect no such resurrection. In keeping with the commitment of Reform Judaism to change with changing circumstances, whatever the justification for cremation might have been in the past, I believe that Auschwitz created a new reality, rendering it an unconscionable choice for Jews today. Reform rabbis, to their credit, typically discourage the practice, but nonetheless officiate at funerals that will end in cremation. Is this akin to discouraging interfaith marriage, but officiating anyway?

As a former president of a cemetery association, I became aware of another emerging issue that many Jews confront today, in an era where retirement to the Sun Belt creates the eventual need to decide whether to be buried in the community where one has spent the major part of one’s life, or in the new community. Cemeteries typically make their money, not when they sell a gravesite, but when they open it and fill it. A family that owns a family plot in Chicago but has moved to Tucson may just forget about the Chicago property when the time comes, leaving it forever vacant and depriving the cemetery of the expected opportunity for the further income that helps, for example, to fund indigent burials. If the gravesite is not going to be used, why not contribute it back to the cemetery association, in exchange for a tax deduction that will very likely be bigger than the original purchase price?

Parashah Va-y’chi reminds us that eventually each life will end and poses the question of the disposition of our physical remains. Without getting into shenatah betocheinu chayei olam, who has implanted within us eternal life of the soul, where will our bones be planted? Certainly we make it easier for our loved ones if we express our preferences; even more so if we make pre-arrangements, or if our congregation has a standardized funeral plan. But ultimately, the choices are in the hands of and for the benefit of the living. Father Jacob wanted the living comfort that he would lie with his kin, but even more, he wanted to influence where his clan would live.

Today we have a tendency when these issues are discussed to get into environmental issues, like green burial or appropriate use of real estate. I have introduced the idea that traditional burial also provides funding to make sure the indigent spend eternity in appropriate fashion. We weigh the needs and desires of the living and the dead against a multitude of worthy principles, contemporary and ancient.

May we all live and be well, and not have to face the issues I have raised too soon.