The short answer to the question “can Jews with tattoos have a Jewish burial” is “yes”. Yet there is a widely known piece of misinformation which states that a Jew cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if he or she has tattoos. This authoritative sounding snippet was probably made up by Jewish Mammas wanting to deter their kids from getting tattoos! In Leviticus (19:28) Jews are warned not to mark (etch) their skin as the Canaanites did, this was to deter them from imitating the Canaanites including their skin markings and idol worship. This common fallacy is also derived from a few isolated incidents in the past when some Jewish Burial Societies forbade the burial of Jews with tattoos in a Jewish cemetery.
Jewish Burial Societies and Burying Jews with Tattoos
Each city or Jewish community has it’s own Jewish Burial Society which is made up of volunteers who run the local cemetery and guide Jews through the unpleasant experience of burying a loved one. They also have the authority to make policy concerning Jewish burial in their cemetery. A small number of these burial societies outlawed tattooed Jews from a Jewish burial and this is what gave rise to the commonly misunderstood law. These burial societies made policy to ensure that Jews could be buried in proximity to other “righteous” Jews and not those who had made a permanent voluntary violation of the Jewish law prohibiting body markings. However today I am unaware of any Jewish Burial Society which denies Jews with tattoos from a Jewish burial. Even in Israel where Jewish religious tradition is most strongly followed Jews with tattoos can have a respectable Jewish burial in the regular Jewish cemetery.
The Biblical Prohibition of Tattoos
Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord”
This scripture accounts for modern-day Jews being discouraged from having tattoos.
No matter whether you conform to the Progressive Jewish Movement, Conservative or the Orthodox you will still be allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have tattoos. A recent example of this was the singer Amy Winehouse who was covered with tattoos and yet she was buried in a Jewish cemetery with a full Jewish burial ceremony and despite the fact that she was also cremated which is also against Jewish law.
Tattoos – The Breaking of Jewish Law
Consider the fact that Jews break many religious laws ( not eating kosher food; not keeping Shabbat; not wearing head coverings; not preying three times a day) and yet this does not prevent them from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, in the same way having tattoos won’t keep you out of a Jewish cemetery. Tattoos are simply a more visible display of the breaking of Jewish law but not a more heinous one than other transgressions.There are two transgressions which could jeopardise your chances of a Jewish burial in a Jewish cemetery: cremation and suicide, but today even those are overlooked in most liberal Jewish communities.
The Jewish law does state that you should be buried with those of similar moral and ethical beliefs and “one does not bury a righteous person next to a wicked person”. But since no one wants to take it upon themselves to be the judge of another’s character this law is not observed today. Instead it is presumed that the person repented or found peace with God before his death. So no Jew will be denied a Jewish burial because they ate bacon or had a tattoo!
Jewish Burial with Holocaust Tattooed Numbers
A tattoo inflicted on a Jew against his will (like the Nazi concentration camp numbers) is not looked upon in the same negative light as tattoos made by choice. The use of tattooed numbers during the Holocaust made the Jewish view of tattoos even more negative. There are also tattoos as a result of permanent facial make-up or tattooed eye-brows to replace eye-brows lost during chemo therapy. Some patients are tattooed with medical symbols giving information in cases of an emergency. Tattoos received against your will or for medical reasons are overlooked by Jewish Halacha and the bearer is not held accountable.
Tattoos and Jewish Law
There has been much debate on the subject of tattoos in Jewish religious works as the Torah passage “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord”. It has even been argued in the Gemarah that it is the addition of G-d’s name in the tattoo that makes it forbidden because of the phrase “I am the Lord”.
It is also thought that man was created in G-d’s image and so we are not at liberty to alter the body as we wish (this should also cover voluntary plastic surgery). Further debate questions the correct translation of the words gash/etch/mark or cut in the Biblical passage.
Is it true that Jews have to have their tattoos removed before burial in a Jewish cemetery?
Removing tattoos from a Jewish body would be an even bigger transgression against Jewish law as a Jew must be buried whole with all his body parts, the removal of skin would conflict with this concept. However Jews are buried without their regular clothes, they are wrapped in a white burial shroud, and without any additions to the body which can be removed, like piercings, prosthetics or other worldly material possessions. Tattoos are left intact but the bodies are prepared for burial, cleaned and all removable items (rings etc) removed by the Jewish Burial Society before internment.
Although forbidden in Jewish law a tattoo made by choice does not exclude you from burial in a Jewish cemetery. Getting a tattoo is considered a sin along with hundreds of other things but sinning – whatever the sin – is not going to prevent you from having a Jewish burial. The Jewish belief in “Kavod HaMet” or respect of the deceased overrides any considerations about the way a Jew lived his life. If all Jewish sinners were denied burial in a Jewish cemetery it would be pretty empty!