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A Grave Matter

10/27/2021 06:11:29 PM

Oct27

This week’s portion is the first in the Torah to focus on death and mourning, and, in particular, on the concerns and priorities around choosing a grave site, where we might be buried, and whom we might be buried with.  Those stories still have relevance for us today, in plans that our congregation has made over the past few years, and in particular in plans that we are considering, to create a new cemetery section to serve the needs of families that may include  non-Jewish members.

In this week's portion, Hayee Sarah,  Sarah dies.  Even though he and Sarah are over 100 years years old, they have not thought to plan where they will be buried  until the the need is urgent, and Abraham goes to the local residents to seek a gravesite.  Abraham ends up paying “top shekel” to Ephron for the cave of Machpelah.  One of the primary factors in his decision is control. It is not just enough that Abraham  wants to know that there is a site reserved for his family. He wants to know that burial will take place according to his traditions, and that his family will determine who else is laid to rest with them.

Abraham’s experience forms a roadmap for our own experiences.  Often Jewish families want to control their place of burial.  They want to reserve a space in advance so that they will not have to make complicated financial and logistical decisions in a moment of grief.  Moreover, they want to know that there will be room for a “family plot,” for those who shared a bond in life to rest together in death, and to make it easier for future generations to visit.  At the same time, families are also concerned about what Jewish laws and practices will be followed.  In particular, there is a tradition that a Jewish cemetery or cemetery section will only allow burial for Jews. (There are stories about Jewish cemeteries barring Jews who bear a tattoo or committed suicide.  These are not literally accurate, but are a story for another week)

However, there is a new challenge that has emerged in the past decades, where for some families, Abraham’s desires are at odds with each other.  Many Jewish families have non-Jewish members who have joined by marriage.  A couple where one is Jewish and one is not might want to follow the model of Abraham and be buried together, but the non-Jewish partner would not be eligible to be buried in a Jewish cemetery following traditional practices.  A Jewish couple might want to reserve a large family plot for generations to come but can’t be sure who might join the family at a later date. 

Over 10 years ago, the Conservative movement explored this question, and concluded that it would be appropriate if congregations, in addition to having a cemetery open for traditional burial, also developed sections that would be designed to meet the needs of interfaith families.  In the last few years, we have opened a new Jewish cemetery section at North Atlanta Memorial Park, and have established continued burial rights at Arlington, but these are for Jewish burial only.  Based on this ruling of the Conservative movement, we are considering establishing a new interfaith section at Arlington, if there is sufficient interest. This new section would allow us to meet the needs of interfaith families who want to be buried together, without diminishing  the way that traditions are followed in our existing sections. 

As Abraham learned, there are many different factors that enter into the choice of a gravesite, but it is a choice better made before it becomes a crisis.  If you are interested arranging for a gravesite in one of our existing sections, please contact the office.  If you are interested in the possibility of a new B’nai Torah section that would be designed for the needs of interfaith families, please contact me.

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782