What happens when a final resting place isn’t so final? In our modern era of perpetual development and expanding cities, it is not unheard of for there to be requests to relocate entire cemeteries. Not surprisingly, Jewish law has an opinion on this very subject.
The dignity of the dead is exceedingly important in Jewish law. A body is buried as quickly as possible and, before burial, the body is washed and prepared by a special society trained in maintaining the dignity of the dead. Therefore, disinternment is generally not permitted.
“The bones may not be removed from an honorable grave to an honorable grave, from one unworthy grave to another, from an unworthy grave to one that is honorable and no need to state, from an honorable grave to one that is unworthy” (Jerusalem Talmud Moed Katan 2:4).
And yet there are numerous examples in Jewish history of bodies being exhumed from their graves and re-interred elsewhere. Indeed, in the Torah itself, Joseph instructs his brothers to tell their descendants that when they ultimately leave Egypt and return to the land of Canaan, they should take his bones with them.
The honor of being buried in the holy land is one of the several exceptions to the prohibition concerning the exhumation of a corpse. Others include being re-buried in a previously established family plot, being removed from a non-Jewish cemetery to a Jewish cemetery or when water seepage makes the grave unsafe. In situations of construction, since there is no recourse, the moving of the graves is generally permitted.
It is interesting to note that the immediate family of the deceased whose grave is being relocated must treat the day of disinternment and reinternment (which should happen on the same day) as a day of mourning, similar to the mourning during the week of shiva.