One inevitable side effect of the Jewish state’s demographic miracle is an increasing number of the dead as well as the living. Jewish law and custom mandate strict procedures for attending to the bodies of the deceased, which include a requirement that they be buried intact in the earth, thus prohibiting cremation. As Israel is a small country, land for burial is scarce, and cemeteries are already experimenting with creative options. Shlomo Brody sets forth the case for reviving a practice that was widespread two millennia ago.
In recent years, several activists have suggested restoring a method commonly used during the Second Temple period: likut atsamot (gathering bones for reburial). Under this approach, a corpse is buried under the explicit condition that following decomposition (say, a year after burial), the remaining bones will be reinterred into a small ossuary that is placed into a multi-layered alcove or burial cave. This initiative, called K’vurat Eretz Yisrael, suggests that families or communities will utilize the same cave or building. Multiple generations of family members or comrades can have a final memorial spot around their loved ones. Archaeologists have found such caves from antiquity, which contained the remains of dozens and even hundreds of members of the same family.
This practice is already found in the Bible. Joseph’s bones, for example, were initially buried in Egypt and ultimately reinterred in the Land of Israel. This tale has served as a precedent for many people to bring the remains of their family members buried in the Diaspora to reinterment in Israel.
The Jerusalem Talmud describes how this procedure was done. “In earlier times, they were burying them in trenches. When the flesh had rotted away, they collected them and buried them in cedar wood.” The Talmud then describes the emotions of the living family members. On the day [of the reinterment] itself, the mourners were sad and would sit shiva until nightfall. The following day, they were happy since the final decomposition of flesh was taken as a sign that the deceased was no longer under final divine judgment.
Restoring this practice will save billions of shekels and many dunams of land.