A Supreme Court judge in Queens County permitted the non-Jewish spouse of a deceased Jewish man to exhume his body from a Jewish cemetery for reburial in what the judge termed a “non-denominational” cemetery, St. Elizabeth. The decedent was buried in the family plot next to his father. His mother and sister opposed the exhumation, claiming he wanted to be buried in accordance with Jewish Law.
The decedent’s spouse acknowledged that she had signed an authorization for the interment of her husband “whom I know to be a member of the Jewish faith” in the plot owned by Calvin Herskowitz, her husband’s father. However, she testified that at that time she was emotionally distraught and grieving over the sudden, unexpected death of her husband, and did not know that the plot could not accommodate her remains so that she could be buried with her husband.
To determine the decedent’s level of commitment to Judaism, the judge heard testimony from friends and relatives. Among other interesting parts of the decision in Eirand-Herskowitz vs. Mt. Carmel Cemetery Association, the judge stated that: “Although it is not the function of this court to sit in judgment of anyone’s choice in the manner in which he/she chooses to practice or observe his/her faith, the court finds that these occasional, isolated acts of religious observance do not unequivocally constitute and support the fact that Jamie actively practiced his Jewish faith.” The judge also found that: “as the proposed final resting place for his remains, St. Elizabeth Cemetery is nondenominational, there is no evidence to show that his burial there will offend his Jewish faith.”
As far as I know, Jewish law permits the exhumation of remains only under very narrow circumstances. Removing the remains to a non-Jewish cemetery (even one that is non-denominational) is certainly not one of these circumstances. Did the relative’s attorneys make a fatal mistake by failing to have an expert in Jewish law (i.e. a Rabbi) testify that the exhumation most certainly would offend the decedent’s Jewish faith?
Update 4/8/11 — the decision was affirmed on appeal. Our follow-up post can be read here. SE