By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
Among the precautions that Kohanim must take in order to ensure their ritual purity is the prohibition against coming into contact or even close proximity to dead bodies. Female Kohanim are generally not bound to these Kohanic laws of purity and impurity. Even a Kohen who is a minor should be educated in all the laws relating to his unique status. So too, parents of young Kohanim are encouraged to ensure that even their young children do not engage in anything that could compromise their status and purity requirements.
The restrictions of a Kohen concerning a non-Jewish dead body are somewhat different. This is because a Gentile body only transmits impurity when touched. Authorities are divided on whether a Kohen is permitted to put himself under the same roof as a deceased Gentile. There is no problem, however, for a Kohen to be in proximity to a deceased Gentile as long as he is careful not to touch the corpse. Kohanim who need to enter a hospital building should inquire whether or not there are any dead bodies currently being stored there. This is especially important in Israel.
Museums, which display ancient human remains and the like, will often be off-limits to Kohanim, as well. Not only may a Kohen not be under the same roof as a corpse but even the overhang of a tree can transmit the impurities of any graves that its shade might cover. Therefore, a Kohen who is walking along the outer perimeter of a fenced cemetery should be sure not to walk under any branches of a tree that may also be shading a grave on the other side. Indeed, one of the main reasons that Jewish cemeteries always have a gate surrounding them is to help ensure that a Kohen does not violate his sanctity. So too, it allows Kohanim a clear position from where they can stand to observe any ceremonies taking place inside the cemetery. Indeed, a proper wall or fence may allow a Kohen to come even closer to a grave than the generally permitted seven feet.
Kohanim are also forbidden to visit the resting places of Tzaddikim such as the tombs at Ma’arat Hamachpela or Kever Rachel. While there are sources that seem to suggest that the resting places of righteous people cannot defile a Kohen, normative halacha is not in accordance with this view. Kohanim who visit such places are not conducting themselves appropriately.
A Kohen is permitted to defile himself to attend the funeral of his seven closest kin. So too, a Kohen is permitted to offer assistance to someone who is dying even though it is unlikely that it will prolong that person’s life. In the event that a Kohen unexpectedly happens upon a dead body, he is permitted to sit with the body and watch over it until someone else is able to take over. He may even bury the body if there is no one else to do so. In fact, so important is proper care for a deceased, that even the Kohen Gadol may bury someone who has no one else to bury him.