As a Jewish Funeral Director who volunteers to help in the community, I am often asked to present in front of 7th-grade classes at local Hebrew schools. 7th grade is the time when the Jewish Life Cycle is taught, and I am often tasked with explaining the Jewish views on death. One of the most frequently asked questions I get from students is: “Can you still be buried in a Jewish Cemetery if you have a tattoo or multiple tattoos?” Growing up in a predominantly Jewish area, surrounded by Jewish friends and family, I too heard the belief that one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have a tattoo. Let me set the record straight. This belief is purely a myth. Religiously speaking, the Torah does state that you should not desecrate the body, but this does not exclude one from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. There is no basis for restricting burial to individuals who violate this prohibition. How could such a huge misconception be perpetuated throughout the years? Let us explore a few possible reasons for this:
1. The Torah does mention something that could be considered a Tattoo Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.” This could refer to any permanent marking or engraving on the skin. Although I am not the ultimate judge, to me, committing one sin does not exclude you from a proper burial. Getting a tattoo is like any other violation of Torah law. The emphasis on tattoos compared to other sins, maybe because tattoos are considered permanent, so the transgression is still visible and evident.
2. The Jewish belief that the Body is Sacred A common Jewish belief is that you should keep your body as it was given to you, not alter it. This comes from the idea that the human body is created “b’tzelem Elohim”, or, in the image of God. The body is sacred and should be cared for in life and in death.
3. Policies derived from the by-laws of Individual Societies and Synagogue Burial Grounds While the myth that one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have tattoos primarily comes from the Torah’s law that you shouldn’t mark the body, this notion also continues through the misconception created by individual societies and synagogue burial grounds that create their own rules and standards for burial. Every Jewish society or burial ground reserves the right to forbid certain individuals from burial based on their own set of standards, including those with tattoos. My question to the people who enforce the y-laws is, “What would you tell the family of a holocaust survivor who has the tattoo or branding from the concentration camps?”
4. Jewish Mothers… In my humble opinion, one of the biggest factors for this myth being purported over several generations has to be the collection of Jewish Mothers who have told their children not to get tattoos and used this myth as the central reason as to why Jewish children should stay away from getting a tattoo. I am sure we all had a mother who tried to protect us from multiple items they viewed as making a mistake with our life or our body, and tattoos were always a central theme of an item to avoid.