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Delaying A Funeral To Honor A Deceased
A Nazir May Defile Himself for a Mes Mitzvah
(Nazir 47a)



We learn in our sugya that although a Kohen Gadol and a nazir may not become ritually impure through contact with the dead, they may do so in order to bury a meis mitzvah. This applies only to burying the entire body, or the head and most of the body, or the skull and spine. A Kohen and a nazir may not become impure to bury severed limbs. However, if they have already become impure to bury most of the body, and they then found other limbs, they must bury the limbs as well (Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 374:2).


Autopsy Scandal

Until about forty years ago, hospitals in Israel performed autopsies on almost all the patients that died under their care, ignoring the protests of surviving family members. According to Jewish law, unnecessary autopsies are forbidden, since they are considered a disgrace to the deceased. HaRav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, was consulted regarding many halachic issues that arose as a result of this grim practice.


Funerals for Incomplete Bodies

Often, the hospitals removed internal organs, which were then misplaced during the course of examinations. The bodies of the deceased were returned stripped of their internal organs. The bereaved families then raised a question concerning the halacha in Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 357:1) that a funeral may be postponed if necessary for the honor of the deceased (to allow people a chance to attend the funeral). May a funeral be postponed even if portions of the body are missing, or perhaps this is no longer considered a complete corpse, but rather a collection of limbs, which must be buried immediately? Further, does it matter which body parts are missing? This question was more recently asked concerning those murdered in the 9-11 World Trade Center bombing.

Rabbi Feinstein began his examination of this question based on our sugya, where we learn that a corpse has the status of a meis mitzvah only if the head and majority of the body, or the skull and spine, remain. Perhaps the same is true here, that only if these portions of the body remain is it considered a proper funeral, which may be postponed for the honor of the deceased. However, R’ Moshe concluded that if even one limb of the body is buried, if this is all that is available to be buried, it is considered a proper funeral which can be postponed if necessary.


Using a Body to Protest

Rabbi Feinstein was also asked if it was permitted to bring an autopsied body to a protest demonstration, to awaken public sentiment and perhaps force the hospitals to cease the gruesome practice. Although such a demonstration is not an honor for this particular deceased, if it is deemed necessary for the honor of dead people in general, R’ Moshe permitted it.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.