Does Jewish law permit a family to exhume the remains of a loved one so that he can rest throughout eternity alongside his relatives? Or does the sanctity of the deceased reign supreme, prohibiting disturbing his remains?
The family of Howard Tobin, who died in 1965, is hoping associate Rabbi Ari Goldberg of Orthodox congregation Poale Zedeck ultimately is able to reconcile halacha with the desire of a family to be together.
If not, the Tobin family is counting on Judge Lawrence O’Toole of Orphan’s Court to order the exhumation of Tobin’s remains from the Poale Zedeck Cemetery in Richland, so that he can be laid to rest in the Star of David section of Homewood Cemetery in Point Breeze, said Shelly Frankel, Tobin’s daughter.
Tobin’s son Steven, who died in 2008, is buried in Homewood Cemetery; his wife, Roberta, who has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, wishes to be buried there as well, although she also owns a plot next to her husband at Poale Zedeck.
When Tobin died suddenly, at the age of 45, with no instructions for burial, his wife, Roberta, accepted help from his brothers in arranging for interment. His brothers chose Poale Zedeck Cemetery because their father was a member of that congregation.
Through the years, Roberta Tobin has found it difficult to make the trek to Richland to visit Tobin’s grave, Frankel said. When her son, Steven, died last year, with no wife or children, she decided to bury him in the Star of David section, a much more convenient location to her home. She also purchased two additional plots there: one for herself, when the time came, and one to which she intended to move her husband.
Although Tobin predeceased his parents and siblings, his mother, father, brother and sister have since been buried at Poale Zedeck. Steven, however, is the only Tobin family member in the Star of David section, and Roberta does not want him to be alone.
But when the Tobin family approached Poale Zedeck last year with its request to exhume Howard Tobin’s remains, Rabbi Yisroel Miller, who has since moved to Calgary, Alberta, refused the request, saying that exhumation in this case would violate halacha.
“We never thought it would be a problem,” Frankel said. “But we just hit a brick wall with Rabbi Miller and the board of directors [of Poale Zedeck].
“I just want my dad to be buried with his wife and son,” Frankel said. “My mother feels it’s not right that she’s encountering these problems.”
The Tobin family is now trying to work out a resolution with Goldberg, Poale Zedeck’s associate rabbi.
Frankel said the first hurdle her family must cross is confirming that the coffin is in good shape, and has not deteriorated over time. If the coffin is not in one piece, she believes it is less likely for Poale Zedeck to agree to the exhumation.
“We have to have the cemetery put a probe down there. It’s been over 45 years, so there may be some disintegration,” Frankel said, adding that since the coffin is made of metal rather than wood, it is more likely that it is still solid.
“If it wasn’t metal, we wouldn’t be able to proceed,” she said.
“Rabbi Goldberg is being very agreeable, and trying to be helpful,” she said, but added that if an agreement cannot be worked out with Poale Zedeck, she will pursue matters in court.
Goldberg was traveling this week, and could not be reached for comment.
Attorney and Poale Zedeck board member Joel Pfeffer, speaking on behalf of the congregation, confirmed it was trying to work out a solution for the Tobins that was also acceptable “according to Jewish law.”
“Allowing the deceased to rest in peace is a universal concept supported by Jewish law, which allows disinterment in limited circumstances,” Pfeffer said. “While I cannot comment on the ongoing litigation, if the court orders us to allow disinterment we will fully cooperate with the Tobins to disinter the remains with the utmost dignity and respect as dictated by Jewish law and tradition.”
Exhumation is taken very seriously in all denominations of Judaism, according to Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“Nobody says this is a clear-cut thing,” Aaron said. “The Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements all err on the side of honoring the dead and protecting the sanctity of the dead.”
While exhumation is not favored, Aaron said, in Jewish law “there are pretty clear exceptions.” Those exceptions include allowing the transfer of a body to a family plot, based on an assumption that a person would want to be buried with his ancestors; transferring remains to Israel; satisfying a communal need; or where the first burial was done with the understanding that it was only a temporary plot.
“The question becomes, ‘what defines a family plot?’ ” Aaron said. “And a family plot is not just defined by what the family says it is, but by what halacha says it is.”
Aaron said that another important factor in considering whether to allow exhuming remains from a Jewish cemetery is preservation of the integrity of the cemetery itself.
“There are halachic expectations of those who buy plots there,” he said. Therefore, exhumation must be only allowed if it is halcahically acceptable in order to preserve the dignity of the cemetery as well as all those who rest there.
Frankel said she and her family are Reform Jews, although she is respectful of Orthodox halacha.
“I don’t disrespect their beliefs,” she said. “They are just not ours.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1263.)