By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
We are required to conduct ourselves with a sense of reverence when visiting a cemetery. There are a number of different terms that are used within Torah literature to describe a cemetery, among them are: Beit Ha’almin, Beit Hakvarot, Kever, Chatzer Mavet, and Beit Hachaim. The place of burial is also the place from where the soul clings to and keeps its presence in this world. As such, in addition to holy rabbis and other individuals of note who are buried in a cemetery, we can see why the cemetery is deemed to be a holy place.
It is improper to eat or drink in a cemetery or to perform any activities not directly related to the cemetery or the dead who are buried there. We are not to derive any personal benefit from a cemetery visit. It is also prohibited to relieve oneself in any part of the cemetery unless there are designated facilities available for this purpose. Even learning Torah, praying, or performing unrelated mitzvot in a cemetery is forbidden, lest the deceased feel slighted at not being able to perform these mitzvot themselves. As such, one must be sure to hide one’s Tzitzit and remove one’s Tefillin before entering a cemetery. It is permitted to recite Tehillim and deliver eulogies that contain Torah content at a grave, as they are done in order to show honor the deceased. It is an ancient custom to visit the graves of rabbis and relatives on their Yartzeit to offer prayers and engage in words of Torah there. The deceased derive great pleasure when their grave is visited.
One may not make use of a cemetery to serve as a shortcut in order to allow oneself to quickly reach the other side. It goes without saying that one must be careful to never step on a grave. Animals must be left at the entrance of the cemetery and are not to be led into its perimeter. One who tends to a cemetery, such as by mowing the lawn, and the like, should burn any clippings rather than thrown them out with the garbage. Fruits that have grown on any trees in a cemetery may be eaten. It is interesting to note that anything dedicated for holy purposes, including a cemetery, synagogue, or even holy books, only assumes such status after its first use.
There are special prayers, including the blessing “Asher Yatzar”, that are recited when visiting a cemetery after an absence of at least thirty days since one’s last visit. When visiting a grave, it is customary to touch the tombstone with one’s left hand, and one should place a stone upon it before leaving which serves to show that someone had come to pay their respects. One should wash one’s hands both before and after visiting a cemetery, as well as any time one has come into contact or even close proximity with the dead. The vessel used when washing one’s hands after such occasions should not be passed from person to person, but rather it should simply be put down for the next person to pick up. Some authorities recommend not drying one’s hands after this washing, but rather allowing them to air dry on their own. One should be sure to perform these washings before entering one’s home.
It is recommended that one only visit the same grave once per day. Many people have the custom to throw some grass or earth behind their shoulder before leaving a cemetery. It is taught that doing so serves as a reminder of the ashes of the Para Aduma, the red heifer, of the Beit Hamikdash, which was the only way one was able to achieve full ritual purity. Others suggest that throwing grass behind one’s shoulder serves as a sign of pain and mourning.
The members of a family are collectively obligated to erect a tombstone at the grave of their deceased. The tombstone is meant to honor the deceased and ensures that a deceased’s resting place can be located quickly and with certainty. It also ensures that a Kohen will know not to approach the immediate area. The funds to purchase a tombstone should come from the estate of the deceased. It is not of Jewish origin to decorate a grave with flowers and therefore, according to many authorities, it should be avoided.