Monday, March 22, 2010

Burying a Suicide Victim in a Jewish Cemetery

One of those questions I hear every so often: Do we bury someone in a Jewish cemetery if he commits suicide?

I was reminded of the question by this article:
When college students take their lives, as apparently happened recently at Cornell University, the instinctual reaction, to mourn publicly and officially, may be the wrong thing to do, psychologists say.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends that schools have a "muted response" to suicide, said Ann Haas, director of suicide prevention projects. That's because students already vulnerable to suicide may be attracted to the idea of getting recognition or gratification in death.
"For those students who seem to really be at risk, there's something about those kinds of memorials that really can trigger additional suicide," she said…
Researchers have found that suicide can, in effect, be contagious, creating clusters of people taking their own lives in close proximity within a few months. The people involved may not have had any direct contact, but publicity of the suicide, including through large vigils and assemblies, may result in more suicidal behavior, said Madelyn Gould, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.
"We do feel that some memorials need to take place, but it might be worth trying to develop some suicide prevention activity to honor that person," she said.

Along similar lines, I remember hearing that newspapers have a policy of not explicitly recording ‘suicide’ as a cause of death in their Obituary columns, lest that inspire imitators. [See Student Newspaper Guidelines here.]

These policies confirm the longstanding but controversial Jewish practice of avoiding public honors for people who commit suicide (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avel 1:11):

המאבד עצמו לדעת אין מתעסקין עמו לכל דבר ואין מתאבלין עליו ואין מספידין אותו, אבל עומדין עליו בשורה ואומרין עליו ברכת אבלים וכל דבר שהוא כבוד לחיים
If a person knowingly destroys himself, we do not involve ourselves with him for anything. We do not mourn for him, we do not eulogize him, but we do form a condolence line and recite the blessing for mourners and perform all other practices which honor the living.

This is a tough practice, and one that I’ve never actually seen implemented; as the Rambam himself wrote there, and as the Aruch haShulchan noted (Yoreh Deah 345:5) seven centuries later, we depend on any possible explanation to conclude that this was not an intentional suicide.

But why have the practice in the first place? Because of the fear outlined by Ann Haas and Madelyn Gould; we don’t want to encourage others to do likewise for the sake of honor.

To return to the main question, this is why people think that we do not bury a suicide victim in a Jewish cemetery. However, neither the Rambam nor the Shulchan Aruch says anything about excluding that person from a Jewish cemetery. Indeed, the Shach to Yoreh Deah 345:1 seems to say that we do bury the person in a Jewish cemetery.

I did know of one case, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in which a woman was alleged to have committed suicide, and she was buried outside of the cemetery gates. Some years later, though, they expanded the cemetery – and so her grave ended up in with those of everyone else.


  1. Thank you for clearing this up. My question is that the examples you gave are related to suicide by depression. What about suicide in light of unremitting pain from a terminal disease, such as cancer? Certainly, one would not expect others to follow suit? Would this be looked at differently? Along those lines, what about the Jews of Masada? Should we look at them in a positive way, or are their deaths not to be mourned or eulogized?

  2. Anonymous-
    Thanks for your question.
    Re: Suicide in light of terminal disease - Yes, I do think that this spurs imitations.
    Re: Masada - An interesting question, which has been debated for centuries. I'd recommend Bereishit Rabbah 34:13 and Radak to Shemuel I 31:5 as worthwhile and relevant reading.

  3. I understand the need to keep from encouraging others in this practice, but what of the pain felt by those left behind? I always thought that an important aspect of mourning was to address the needs of the close relatives who survived. It seems insensitive to deny them the comfort of mourning rituals.

  4. would be interesting to chart the actual orthodox practice though history and what changed (in society, in orthodoxy, in application)and what that tells us about halachic process
    Joel Rich

  5. It is my understanding that in most cases of suicide, the deceased is considered to have been mentally ill and therefore not responsible for his actions.

  6. Fruma-
    Yes, this is the problem. The core halachah recognizes this by insisting that we do take care of the survivors in their bereavement, and the time-honored practice of doing everything to label the death a non-suicide is also in part on their behalf.

    Yes, that would be interesting.

    Yes, that was what I meant in my comment, as the Rambam himself wrote there, and as the Aruch haShulchan noted (Yoreh Deah 345:5) seven centuries later, we depend on any possible explanation to conclude that this was not an intentional suicide.

  7. Joel (and others): Zvi Zohar, in his "He'iru Penei ha-Mizrah," (chapter 8) discusses a tragic epidemic of suicides that Rabbi Repha'el ben-Shim'on of Cairo (late 19th and early 20th centuries) had to deal with, and analyzes the reasons that the sanctions that R. ben-Shim'on imposed were successful at stemming the tide. His success was due to a very perceptive read of both the epidemic of suicides in question and the effect such sanctions would have in Egyptian society specifically.

  8. Rav Goren also has an analysis of M'tzada in Torat Hashabbat V'hamoed.