For Some, the Final Resting Place Isn't So Final

Reburying relatives in Israel can be a complex but comforting process.

Dr. Morris Strauss had waited years for the right moment to ask his mother the most sensitive of questions. He spotted the opportunity to broach the subject after attending the reburial of a friend's father at a cemetery in Herzliya, and stopped by his mother's place nearby on his way home.

"I told her where I had been and she asked me who and where and what. I told her and she didn't say anything," Strauss recalled this week. "But I asked anyway: 'How would you feel if we could possibly reinter Dad's remains in Israel?'" It was a tense moment for Strauss who had buried his father in 1966 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where the family had lived.

His mother, whom he describes as a strong and brave lady, answered unequivocally: "It would be a wonderful thing for me."

The task of reinterring a body in Israel, which involves exhuming the coffin abroad and transferring it to Israel for reburial, is both physically and bureaucratically complex [see box] and entails no small expense. Yet this does not stop dozens of people a year from embarking on the process.

"It had always bothered me that my father's grave was isolated from the rest of the family in a distant country," says Strauss, an orthodontist who has lived in Israel since 1971. "My father was an active Zionist and my brother and I felt quite certain that his wish and desire would be to be buried in Israel. But we were always hesitant about the effect it would have on my mother. As soon as she agreed, we were keen to do it as soon as possible."

The conversation between Strauss and his mother took place just over seven years ago. He and his brother, Prof. Simon Strauss of Kfar Shmaryahu, had anticipated that one of them would need to return to Bulawayo to accompany the body to Israel, but this turned out to be unnecessary. Someone at the Jewish burial society there sent over forms for the required paperwork and the father's remains were brought to Israel in April 2000. He was reburied in the Kfar Shmaryahu cemetery, which has a policy of allowing residents to buy a plot for close relatives. "We also made sure there was a place for my mother," says Strauss, adding that she died two years later.

Strauss describes the reinterment itself as "a very, very meaningful moment." A replica of the gravestone in Bulawayo was made (the original one remained in place with the additional inscription: "The remains were reinterred in Israel in April 2000"). The traditional funeral prayers were said at the graveside and Strauss delivered a eulogy before family members who came from all over the country to attend the ceremony.

"It was very emotional, something that we were gratified to have the opportunity to do. There's absolutely no question in my mind as to whether we did the right thing," he says.

Dr. Tom Weinberger, a former Londoner now living in Israel, also describes the experience of reinterring his father in Jerusalem last month as a "very significant and emotional" experience. His father died 40 years ago, 10 years before Weinberger moved to Israel, and he was joined here shortly thereafter by his mother.

"I had a feeling at the back of my mind that I wanted to do it at some point," says Weinberger, who is an only child. When his mother died in January, he felt the time had come. "I'd spoken to her about it in vague terms and knew she felt it was an important and worthwhile thing to do," he says. Weinberger contacted a burial society in London which put him in touch with a local travel agency that specializes in reinterments in Israel.

Getting a new copy of his father's misplaced death certificate online took a few weeks, but in all, the process took less than two months. The coffin was exhumed from its resting place in North London and sent on an El-Al plane to Israel, where it was met by representatives of a Jerusalem burial society before being reinterred the following day. After consulting a rabbi, Weinberger sat a symbolic shiva (mouring period) of an hour or two.

"I felt very satisfied, very completed," he says, reflecting on the experience this week. "I felt like I'd closed a circle, bringing my parents together again after being apart for 40 years. Now both my parents are here and I can go and visit them. It's not exactly joy I feel, but that I've achieved something meaningful which I am happy I have done."

Taking the decision to rebury a relative in Israel is not always so straightforward according to Rabbi Jay Karzen, who has volunteered as chairman of the cemetery and bereavement committee of the AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) for the past 15 years. "It can become a crisis if not all the children live in Israel, or none does and just the wife wants her husband reinterred here," says Karzen. But he adds: "It's a family problem that they need to work out between them."

Another potential complication, however, is the cost.

"Sometimes I discourage it when I sense they can't afford it," says Karzen. "I tell them there is no special obligation to bring a person here that is buried abroad. There's a mitzvah to live in Israel, but not to live elsewhere and be buried here. Money is sometimes better spent on letting the living enjoy life."

Karzen estimates that disinterring a body in North America and sending it to Israel costs a minimum of $6,000. Recent examples from the U.K. put the figure at $10,000. Additionally, families are required to pay the Israeli burial society, which meets the coffin at the airport and performs the reinterment, in the range of $5,000 to $8,000.

Perhaps surprisingly, everyone interviewed for this article who had reinterred a relative in Israel was full of praise for the sensitivity and efficiency shown by the burial agencies at both ends. All those interviewed, including those who had reburied siblings and children in Israel, also said that they encountered no adverse reactions to their decision to move the remains of their loved ones here. Some even mention being asked by others for details on how to go about it.

According to several professionals involved, the popularity of reinterment in Israel has neither grown nor diminished in recent years. "It's a consistent thing," says Karzen. "You don't hear too much about Irish people in the States being returned to their home country to be buried, but Jews being buried in Israel seems to be much more common. People want to be buried in the Holy Land." Karzen attributes this desire to Talmudic statements to the effect that the soil in the Holy Land has atoning qualities, which can in some way purify the soul of sin. "Of course when the messiah comes," he adds, "the resurrection will take place in Jerusalem, so they want to be where all the action will take place. It's been a belief for generations."

While the numbers of those who reinter their loved ones in Israel each year are difficult to estimate, records from native English-speaking countries help gauge these figures. Karzen of the AACI says he handles between five and 10 reinterments from North America a year, which are frequently organized by private companies there rather than communal burial societies. Mozes Travel of London, which deals with almost all reinterments to Israel from the U.K., estimates it performs some seven or eight a year. The Johannesburg Jewish Helping Hand and Burial Society handles two or three cases a year and the Melbourne Chevra Kadisha, the busiest Jewish burial society in Australia, deals with one or two reinterments to Israel annually. Kehilat Yerushalayim burial society in Jerusalem reports it carries out about 10 reburials a year in total, mainly from the United States and also France.

According to Rabbi Stewart Weiss of Ra'anana who has officiated at several reinterments, Jewish law treats reburial as a serious matter which should not be undertaken lightly. Nevertheless, he says there are several reasons that justify the procedure. The most prevalent reason is reburial in Israel, which is regarded as meritorious for the deceased, but other reasons include danger of a grave being desecrated or land being reappropriated for other purposes, says Weiss, adding that his father-in-law reinterred his parents from the Czech Republic for this very reason.

"Generally speaking, we don't rebury for the sake of convenience, say, because we have moved from Scotland to England and we don't want to have to schlep back to visit the grave. But family reunification may be regarded as justification."

Rabbinic opinions on which religious practices should be observed at a reinterment vary like every other area of Jewish law, says Weiss. But he believes the normative ruling is to observe a "mini-shiva" on the day of the reinterment until nightfall. Those who have reburied their relatives here appear to have received different opinions from rabbis on which customs associated with the shiva period to observe, such as sitting on low chairs and tearing a garment of clothing, but all said psalms at the grave and recited the traditional memorial prayer and those with a minyan (prayer quorum) said the Kaddish prayer. Most gave a eulogy.

The reason for reluctance to perform reinterment without what is considered a valid reason in Jewish law is the kabbalistic idea that it is traumatic for the soul, says Weiss.

One former New Yorker who reinterred her father says the process triggered feelings of mourning similar to those when he had passed away some years earlier. "For a week before [the reburial] I couldn't concentrate on anything else. The actual day wasn't so bad. In fact, it was very, very dignified. Afterwards I had a fantastic feeling, a feeling of being more at peace - something about seeing the mound of earth. I felt completely at one with what I had done."