Ask the Rabbi

Question: Can a non-Jew be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

Answer: In earlier times there were no Jewish cemeteries.  The Torah mentions the first Jewish burial site which was purchased by Abraham from a man named Ephron (Genesis 23).  He purchased the plot of land in an area called Machpela, near Hebreon in Roder to bury his wife Sarah.  The plot was not a Jewish cemetery, but a private parcel of land.  Lather the rabbis of the Talmud stated that a person should be buried “in his own property” (Baba Batra 112a).  However, they did not clarify that the site must be totally separated from the burial place of a non-Jew.

Much later it became the custom of the Jews to bury the deceased in a Jewish cemetery.  However since this was not a biblical law, but rabbinical law, Jewish burial services varied in different communities.

Often the question arose regarding the burial of intermarried couples.  Could a non-Jewish spouse be buried in the same plot as the Jewish spouse?  The orthodox community does not permit a non-Jew to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  However the ultra-orthodox rabbi Moshe Feinstein did permit a non-Jewish woman to be buried near her Jewish husband (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah II:131).  This set a precedent in Jewish law.  The couple was married by an orthodox rabbi and led a halachally Jewish life.  They raised three children who were observant.

When the woman died, she was prepared for burial by the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society in accordance with strict orthodox law.  However, before the funeral was to take place, a rumor spread that she was not Jewish, that she was born of a non-Jewish mother and neither of them converted.

The question came before rabbi Feinstein.  Her husband insisted that she be buried in the family plot next to him.  Rabbi Feinstein ruled that she may be buried in the family plot provided and that there be a space between her grave and that of the next grave.

It is my opinion that a non-Jew be permitted to be buried next to his or her Jewish spouse if the non-Jew was involved with the Jewish community and supported Jewish ritual, observances, and traditions, and that the plot be surrounded by shrubbery or a railing.