jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Burial Society

Obligation of Burial

Prompt burial. The Torah forbids Halanat HaMet / הלנת המת — leaving a corpse unburied overnight and formulates this requirement as a positive commandment in “but you shall surely bury him the same day / כי קבור תקברנו ביום ההוא” as well as a negative commandment in “his corpse shall not remain overnight / לא תלין נבלתו” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Burying without delay is an important aspect of Kavod HaMet / כבוד המת — showing respect for the dignity of the dead. One must strike a balance, though, between respect accorded by prompt burial and the respect accorded by a proper, well-attended funeral. Consequently, a valid reason for delay might be the need to wait for the delivery of shrouds or a proper casket, wait for the arrival of the eulogizing rabbi or the arrival of close relatives who cannot arrive in time for the same day funeral. Any other type of delay is usually considered a Nivul HaMet / ניבול המת — humiliation of the dead, and is not allowed.

Burials do not take place on Sabbath / שבת and Yom Tov / יום טוב — a major Jewish Holiday, and must be postponed until the conclusion of the Sabbath or Yom Tov. Sometimes burials must be delayed because of government regulations requiring a postmortem examination, completion of documentation, etc.

Once the body has been left unburied one night for the honor of the deceased, the prohibition of leaving a corpse unburied overnight no longer applies. In Jerusalem, however, same day burials are strictly enforced. As ruled in the Talmud, Tractate Baba Kamma 82b, in Jerusalem the body may not be left unburied overnight, even for the honor of the deceased. Thus, when necessary, the burial is even held at night.

Burial of the dead and respectful treatment of the deceased in preparation for proper burial is one of the greatest Mitzvot / מצוות. It takes precedence over any other Mitzvat Aseh / מצות עשה — positive scriptural commandment.

This obligation is incumbent primarily upon the immediate relatives of the deceased, but ultimately upon every Jew, especially in a case of Met Mitzvah / מת מצוה — an individual who passed away and has no one else to take care of his or her burial (e.g., when the deceased has no immediate next-of-kin or they are not involved for some reason in burial preparations). Obligation to bury Met Mitzvah applies even to Cohanim / כהנים — the priests, who are usually forbidden from helping with the burial, as we shall discuss later. When someone dies, all the people in the city must set aside their regular business and busy themselves with burying the dead. The Talmud in Tractate Moed Katan 27b rules, however, that if the city forms a special community institution in charge of burials, the population does not have to stop their everyday activities and help with the burial (see also Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 343:1, 361:2). This traditional Jewish organization in charge of burials is called the Chevra Kadisha / חברה קדישא — Sacred (burial) Society.