A Grave Error
Our family has encountered a dilemma that hopefully you can help clarify. On a recent visit to our family plot, my mother-in-law was shocked to find two new people buried in plots that belong to us (obviously not members of our family). To make a long and sordid tale short, the foundation in charge of the plots gave the wrong plot numbers to a woman who had her parents’ graves moved here from Florida. We assume the woman did not question the placement of the graves under our family headstone because the surname is the same.
Needless to say, we are now in negotiations with the Foundation and the cemetery to have the graves moved to their correct plots.
In the interim, our cousin was speaking with a Conservative Rabbi (also a longtime family friend) and was relating these events. The rabbi proceeded to tell the young man that we could not bury anyone in those graves again - even if the "visitors" are moved.
Our family is quite upset and perplexed by this. What is the Jewish Law regarding this issue? What can we do? Thanks in advance!
Who Needed This Aggravation!
Dear Who Needed This Aggravation,
When you have a tradition as old as Judaism, and when that tradition has been influenced by thousands of communities throughout the world, multiple customs evolve over time, some familiar to us and others obscure. There is a clear bias against exhuming bodies from the earth that is shared by almost all Jewish communities for centuries. When the dead are finally laid to rest, we do our best to leave them be. There are some notable exceptions to the rule. For example, if it is known that the grave will be water-logged on a routine basis or if the neighborhood turns bad (entire cemeteries were exhumed when the Israelis left Gaza), there is reason to exhume a body and rebury it in a more proper place.
In your situation, a mistake has occurred. It is a terrible mistake and the Foundation or the cemetery (whichever is legally liable here) has to in some way correct the error at its own expense. You have the right to those plots.
Could it be that at some point in Jewish history a custom arose to not use a grave that was already used? It's possible, though I have never heard of it and I consulted with a trusted Halakhic authority who also never heard of it. I'm not saying that the custom doesn't exist, but I will tell you that it strikes me as relatively obscure. I would not be thrown by this so-called "tradition." If anything, it sounds more like a superstition than a bona fide minhag (Jewish custom). You can pursue this case with a clear conscience that someday (not for 120 years) those graves may be used for the family members they were originally intended for.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
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