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Removing Tombstones

We are involved in a cemetery documentation project in Germany. Practically all stones for burials before 1800 are missing, although the corresponding field still exists. The question is: could the tombstones have possibly been removed by the Jewish Community before the nazi era. I am looking for halakhic rulings to show that this is extremely unlikely (please include sources)


A basic obligation in Judaism is honor of the meis–the deceased. On account of this obligation, it is forbidden even to eat and to drink in a cemetary, or to conduct business dealings, and so on, out of respect for the deceased. Of course, it would be entirely prohibited to remove the tombstones. According to many authorities, it is even prohibited to make any use of the tombstones, such as leaning on them.

Sources: See Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 368 (the obligation of showing respect in a graveyard); see also Tur and Beit Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 364 (the question of deriving benefit from a tombstone), Shach (364) and Taz (364) ruling that the common custom is to be stringent concerning this matter.

However, where there is a need, in particular for the honor of the deceased, and even possibly for the honor of the living, halakhic authorities have permitted the removal of a tombstone (see, for instance, R. Yosef Konwitz, Divrei Yosef, sec. 13). This would only happen on very rare occasions, and it is indeed extremely unlikely that the tombstones were removed by the Jewish community.

Best of luck with the project!

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