A Matter of Grave Concern
Moshe travelled to Eastern Europe. During his
visit, he discovered the grave of his great-grandfather in an
isolated location far away from a Jewish cemetery. It had not been
tended for nearly sixty years! Would it be permitted for Moshe to
transfer the remains to a Jewish cemetery? Could he have them
transferred to Eretz Yisroel?
It is generally forbidden to exhume the body
of a deceased person, even if one’s intention is to rebury him in
a more respectable location. The Shach (Yoreh De’ah 369, Note 1)
explains that being removed from the grave causes the deceased to
become confused, thinking that he is going to be judged once again.
However, one may transfer the body of a deceased person to a family
burial plot to be re-united with his family (see Responsa of Chasam
Sofer, Vol. 6, No 37). Similarly, transfer to Eretz Yisroel is
permitted, since being buried there acts as an atonement for the
deceased (Shach, Note 3).
If an express condition was made at the time of the original
burial, reserving the right to transfer the body at a later date,
then this is valid. If the grave became waterlogged or was subject
to desecration by non-Jews, transfer is also permitted.
However, the Poskim give several reasons why one should always be
hesitant and cautions about transferring the graves of deceased
persons. These include (a) the fact that removing the deceased from
his grave is in itself considered disrespectful to him) Chacham Tzvi,
Responsum No. 47), (b) the deceased is considered as having legally
acquired his place of burial (Maharam Shik, No. 354) and (c) that if
non-Jews see that Jews remove their deceased brethren from their
graves, they will have no further qualms about desecrating Jewish
graves (Chasam Sofer, as above).
THEREFORE, it would seem that in our case, where this relative
had not been buried in a proper Jewish cemetery in the vicinity or
to Eretz Yisroel. However, it is important to seek the advice of a
competent Halachic authority in each individual case.
It goes without saying that it is most certainly forbidden to
remove a body from a grave for archaeological or other research
purposes under any circumstances. This is considered showing
a total lack of respect to the deceased. If, Heaven forbid, such
work is carried out by Jews, it also constitutes denial of one of
the basic tenets of Judaism – resurrection of the dead.