According to Halakhah [Jewish law], Jewish burial grounds are sacred places in perpetuity. It is forbidden to disturb the dead or to remove them for re-interment elsewhere. It is a primary duty of the Jewish community to maintain its burial grounds:
In the latter case, the burial ground may be the only physical evidence that a Jewish community had ever lived in the town.
Jewish burial grounds may be the responsibility of Hevrot Kadisha [burial societies], umbrella synagogue organisations (especially in London) or individual congregations. Since the mid-Victorian period, Jewish sections have been opened in many municipal cemeteries, often in an arrangement whereby individual burial plots are purchased by the Jewish community as required. Maintenance is carried out by the Local Authority. However, clarification is needed as to whether such consecrated ground is exempt from the application of the 100-year reuse-of-space rule under the Local Authorities Cemetery Order (1977). The Board of Deputies of British Jews (founded 1760) acts as Trustee for a number of closed cemeteries of defunct communities, mainly in the south and west of England.
A number of Jewish burial grounds are protected sites, as Scheduled Ancient Monuments, or contain Listed memorials or fall within the scope of the Parks & Gardens Register or local Conservation Areas. See the Listings page of this website.
The steep demographic decline of Anglo-Jewry since the Second World War, from an estimated peak of 450,000 in the 1950s to 267,000 in 2001 (Census returns) has exacerbated the problem of "orphaned" burial grounds, i.e. those abandoned because of the disappearance of the community that established them.
The Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage documented some 150 Jewish burial grounds in Britain and Ireland dating from between 1657 and 1939. Jewish Heritage has designated a number of these as "Sites at Risk" from criminal vandalism or development pressures, but mostly through sheer neglect. Memorials and structures are exposed to the same threats from the environment - climate, erosion, unchecked vegetation and poor drainage - as all other burial grounds. Weathered and fallen tombstones, often made of inferior materials (such as sandstone) are commonplace even in some grounds of fairly recent date.
Mindless vandalism, particularly by juveniles, and deliberate desecration by anti-Semites, are on-going problems. The latter phenomenon has been on the rise again in recent years. Security problems at cemeteries are of concern to the Board of Deputies and other institutions of organised Anglo-Jewry.
The sacred nature of Jewish burial grounds has not prevented their destruction in practice, even in Britain, whose Jewish community escaped the fate suffered on Continental Europe during the Holocaust.
Follow the simple guidelines set out in this document to achieve good cemetery practice.
Treat your burial ground as you would your own house and back garden! Regular gardening and pruning of vegetation will save you money in the long run. Buildings on site such as the Ohel [prayer house, chapel], Bet Taharah [mortuary] and caretaker’s house also need regular maintenance. This is especially true where a cemetery has fallen into disuse.
When undertaking repair work or improvements take care to conform to building regulations and planning law and, in the case of protected sites, to recognised conservation standards. In the case of historic burial grounds, you may require Listed Building or Conservation Area Consents. Please consult your Local Authority Conservation Officer and/or Historic England (essential for sites Listed at Grade II* or Grade I) if you need further advice.
Be environmentally friendly
Don’t use chemical weed-killers as a substitute for regular gardening. These poison the earth and kill benign vegetation, wild flowers and butterflies that make the cemetery a much pleasanter place for visitors. On the other hand, “Letting nature take its course” is a recipe for destruction. This is not a management policy, just a rationalisation for unbenign neglect.
At the other extreme, the widespread practice in Anglo-Jewry of a "scorched earth policy" followed by gravelling over the site, has in the past been encouraged by religious authorities because it accords with the Halakhic requirement of not deriving benefit from a Jewish grave - even from the grass covering the ground over it. It is also cheaper than regular gardening.
The result, especially in inner city areas, has been that Jewish cemeteries often have a desolate air and can be depressing places to visit. Sometimes they seem slightly threatening: urban foxes have been known to dig under gravestones. Today’s high environmental standards seek to discourage this practice and to find other more sensitive ways of conforming with Jewish burial law.
Neglected cemeteries are an invitation to vandalism and criminality, including that which is racist and anti-Semitic in intent. Institute regular checks and encourage managed visits from interested parties, such as genealogical societies, school trips and Heritage Open Days. You will be surprised at the amount of interest in historic cemeteries there is out there. Cemeteries are an effective resource for education (especially minority history and anti-racist education) and environmental awareness. Visiting the cemetery is the best way of showing that we care!
Most cemeteries do not have an on-site caretaker. Keep gates and boundary walls in good repair. Where new security measures are being taken, take care to conform to planning law and, in the case of protected sites, to recognised conservation standards. New boundaries may require Listed Building or Conservation Area Consents. Please consult your Local Authority Conservation Officer and/or Historic England (essential for sites Listed at Grade II* or Grade I) if you need further advice.
Use open metal railings (many attractive ornamental styles are available) in preference to solid stone or brick (expensive) or concrete (ugly) walls. Visibility of an open green space enhances the local environment and acts as a deterrent to vandalism and criminality.
Keep the gate locked. Know who has the key! Establish a simple access arrangement whereby bona fide visitors can call to collect the key or the keyholder can escort them. Make sure that there is a second copy of the key kept in a secure place.
Beautify the cemetery with easy to maintain shrubs and suitable trees (not too large as roots can cause structural problems to buildings and memorials). A few tubs of flowers can do wonders to relieve a bleak environment. Make sure that planting, especially trees, does not overhang the boundary walls or fence onto a public street or right of way.
Paths should be kept clear and well maintained. Gravel is preferable to concrete and asphalt. Pay attention to drainage. Nobody wants to end up in a watery grave!
Seek Outside Help
Enlist the Local Authority and other agencies such as the Probation Service or Groundwork UK for advice and help with maintenance, environmental and security issues. Much good will exists and funding may even be forthcoming (but don’t rely on this). Sometimes concerned local residents are keen to help in a hands-on way through Neighbourhood Watch schemes and even gardening rotas. Form a Friends Group or Trust Fund to plan for the future of your cemetery.
In many old cemeteries, basic information on the size, boundaries and number of burials has been lost. This is because of the disappearance of vital burial records such as title deeds, leases, burial registers and plot plans.
Old documents should be kept in a safe place, preferably a fire-proof and damp-proof safe. They should not be left lying around in the synagogue office nor - worse - in the Ohel in the cemetery. Paper records are very vulnerable to fire and water and simple wear and tear.
PROTECT YOUR RECORDS
Our ancestors paid fees to the burial society, as we still do today, to ensure that they had a decent burial. They also expected that their last resting place, and those of their families, would remain undisturbed and respectfully maintained in the future. The Jewish community is therefore both Halakhically and morally bound to maintain its cemeteries and those of its ancestors.
Unfortunately, in reality, burial grounds are not a profitable enterprise. Income generated by the sale of plots comes to a natural end, whilst the cost of maintenance increases. The declining population of Anglo-Jewry in most areas means that small and ageing congregations around the country are increasingly needing outside assistance with the upkeep of historic synagogues and disused cemeteries.
Here is some basic advice in order to maintain good practice:
The creation of a central Jewish community conservation trust fund is badly needed to tackle the issue of closed historic cemeteries on a national scale.