Torah For Today: Burying the dead

Torah For Today: Burying the dead

Rabbi Ariel Abel looks at the Torah view on coroner Mary Hassell's proposal not to prioritise burial for any religious community

Ariel Abel is rabbi of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation

An old Jewish headstone in a cemetery
An old Jewish headstone in a cemetery

Earlier this month Mary Hassell, senior coroner of St Pancras Coroners Court, said she would not prioritise burial for any religious community, even if that means leaving the dead unburied for several days. What is the Torah view on this point?

The Torah states that even the corpse of an executed criminal must not lay overnight unburied.

The reason given is that each person is created in the image of God. However, this requirement is not absolute; the practice of same-day burial is not derived from this verse, but from the concern that an unburied corpse may putrefy and spread disease.

Furthermore, halacha has accommodated past practices of delaying the burial of important personalities who were eulogised across a country.

Their body was left to decompose in a coffin and the bones interred six months later. In these cases, the sealing of the coffin was deemed a sufficient act of burial for proceeding with mourning rituals.

In the case of a police investigation where there is suspicion of medical malpractice or murder, the saving of others’ lives come before a same-day burial.

In Germanic countries, a body must lie for three days before burial. A Dayan on a UK Beth Din once anecdotally expressed favour for this practice, voicing his own concern that he feared waking up in his grave and so preferred to be dead for a period before being buried.

If there is a constructive and Health and Safety compliant reason, delaying burial is not transgressed.

The Torah also instructs: “There shall be one rule for you and the dweller in your midst”.

Perhaps then Coroner Hassell is correct in not discriminating? Perhaps, but unless unworkable, same-day burial as a cultural preference should not be unreasonably refused, whether the motive is religious or not.

Rabbi Ariel Abel is chaplain to HM Forces and rabbi of the Liverpool Princes Road synagogue.

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