We have been asked an exploratory question by the Quartermaster Department in Washington. It concerns the possibility of the burial of two bodies in the same grave. The question is still theoretical with the government; but is based upon the likelihood that a bill will be introduced in this Congress, calling for the reservations of family plots in national cemeteries, at least for those members of a family who are veterans. If the bill passes, there will be so much land requested that space will be at a premium. In that case the Quartermaster Department wants to know whether Jewish law permits the burial of two bodies in one grave.
This question has been dealt with from Gaonic times up to our day. There are scores of discussions of it in the responsa literature. The questions involved are three-fold:
1. Whether putting a second body in a grave already occupied is not a bezoion ha-mess, an indignity to the body already occupying the grave. This question is raised only when in the reopening of a grave the bones of the preceding dead are pushed aside. But whenever the second digging is shallow and the first coffin is not even disturbed, the question of indignity (bezoion) does not arise in any of the discussions since obviously it does not apply.
2. The second question involved is the question of whether or not the grave belongs to the body already occupying it and therefore may not be used by anyone else: in other words, the principle that a grave is osur b'hano'oh. Solomon Ben Adereth in his responsum #527 (Vol. I) says that the prohibition of the use of a grave applies only to the living; the living may get no benefit from it (that is, for example, from fruits which grow from the soil of the grave). But it does not apply to the dead. This distinction is quoted approvingly by Moses Isserles in Darche Moshe to Tur Y.D. 364.
3. This leaves the third question: namely, how much of the earth is a body entitled to possess, i.e., how thick should the side walls of a grave be, between it and an adjoining grave; and how thick a ceiling or floor should there be between one grave and another above or below it? In other words, what is the "T' fisas Kever," how much of the earth is the body entitled to possess? This brings us to the practical question, "How near may one coffin be to another?" This question is the main subject of all the responsa and code literature on the question of two coffins in one grave.
The entire discussion stems from the Mishna in Baba Bathra VI, 8, and the discussion on it in the Talmud, Baba Bathra 101a ff. This well-known passage discusses the question of how many graves may be dug in a cave, and in which direction the various burial niches may be dug. All of which, in the discussion in the Talmud and in later authorities, gets to the question of how close the graves are to each other. Various conclusions are drawn. Most of these different opinions as to how near one coffin may be to another are summed up by Abraham Danzig in Chochmas Odom (the section Matzeves Moshe #10). He indicates that the opinions vary from six handbreadths to ten finger widths. Most of the authorities inclined to the opinion that six handbreadths are the proper distance. In fact, inasmuch as the vertical wall between horizontal graves might collapse, whereas the horizontal wall between two vertically adjoining graves is safe, the weight of opinion is that the width of the vertical wall between two horizontally adjoining graves is more important than that of the horizontal wall between two vertically adjoining graves, with which we are concerned. Indeed Rabbi Itzchak Schmelkes of Lemberg in his response to the community of Paris said that a stone slab, even though it is much less in width than six handbreadths, is quite sufficient as a floor between two coffins lying above each other in the same grave (Bays Yitzchok Y.D. 153).
There is no need for going through the entire chain of authorities, except to mention that it goes from the Baraita Evel Rabathi (not in our present texts but in the text quoted by Ramban in Toras Ha-ho' odom) and Hai Gaon down to Mordecai Winkler (Levushe Mordecai). Many of the authorities cite actual cases where great communities permitted the burial of one body above another. Thus, Joel Sirkes (Bach to the Tur ad loc) quotes the practice of Cracow. Aryeh Lev of Metz (Sha'agas Aryeh Ha-chadoshos #17) quotes the practice of Paris. Isaac Elchanan Spector (En Yitzchok #34) mentions the practice of the city of Kalisch, etc.
Some of the authorities are rather lenient as to the space required between the coffins. Thus, the Shach to Yore Deah 362, #4, says that if it is impossible to dig (for the first coffin) deep enough to allow six handbreadths between the superimposed coffins they may get along with less space; so too Eliezar Deutsch in Dudoay Ha-sodeh #53. All these lenient opinions are based upon the responsum of Hai Gaon quoted in the Tur Y.D. #362. At all events, allowing for all variations in space prescribed, the law as codified in the Shulchan Aruch, and later in Oruch ha-Shulchan, is that it is permitted so to bury provided that there be six handbreadths between. For a full discussion of this question see Kolbo Al Avelus by Greenwald, p. 170 ff.
Our answer, therefore, to the Quartermaster Department is this. If there is an actual lack of space for burial, then Jewish law does not object to the burial of one coffin above the other, provided six handbreadths of earth be left between the graves, or a stone or concrete slab at least six inches in thickness be placed between the coffins.