Jewish religious customs require that Jewish burial sites be held in reverence. The religious duty (mitzvah) of burial is the responsibility of a decedent’s children or spouse. If there are no children or spouse, it is the responsibility of the closest relative. According to Jewish law, burial should take place promptly, preferably on the day of death, but within three days at the most.
For Jews a grave site is permanent and once established cannot be violated. In most other cemeteries in Europe grave plots are reused, so while other Europeans will not find old tombstones of their ancestors, Jews often will.
When Jews founded cemeteries, they routinely attempted to purchase land on a permanent basis. Because local laws often made this difficult, bodies were sometimes transported a considerable distance to secure a permanent burial site.
Different Jewish groups have different traditions about gravestones. Ashkenazic Jews have vertical gravestones; Sephardic Jews have horizontal ones. Sephardic stones often have angelic figures and biblical images while images were not permitted on Ashkenazic stones. Today both groups make frequent use of classic Jewish symbols: the star of David, the menorah, the Book of Life, or a candle.
Families that belonged to the priestly class (kohanim) were forbidden to go inside the gates of a cemetery because that would violate laws of ritual purity. Their gravestones usually bear the symbol of two hands with thumbs touching and fingers spread out in a priestly blessing.
For further information about Jewish cemeteries and burial customs, see the chapter "Jewish Cemeteries" in:
- Kurzweil, Arthur, From Generation to Generation: How to Trace Your Jewish Genealogy and Family History: Updated Edition with Online Resources. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2004. (FHL book 929.1 K967 2004)
Jewish congregations with a large membership usually maintain their own cemeteries and burial registers. Smaller congregations reserve a section within other cemeteries.
There are two major types of cemetery records:
Gravestone inscriptions. Information recorded on gravestones or monuments, including transcripts of this information, provide at least the decedent’s name, death date, and name of the father. Other information may be listed. Jewish gravestones are usually inscribed in Hebrew. The information may be duplicated on the stones in English or in the language of the country in which they are found.
Cemetery registers. Information kept by cemetery officials or caretakers include registers, plot books and maps, grave-books, and public (municipal) cemetery records. Information provided in these records includes names, ages, marriage information, sometimes dates and places of birth, who paid for the burial, and names of people (often relatives) buried in the same plot.
To find gravestones and cemetery registers, you need to know where an individual died or was buried. The person may have been buried in a community or private cemetery or in a cemetery maintained by the local synagogue where the deceased lived. You can find clues about burial places in obituaries, funeral notices, synagogue records, and death certificates.
You can find cemetery information in:
- Jewish Cemeteries Throughout the World. [S.l.]: International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. (FHL fiche 6334783.) Two microfiche sold by Avotaynu, Inc. which list 7500 cemeteries in 79 countries.
- Cemeteries of the U.S.: A Guide to Contact Information for U.S. Cemeteries and Their Records. 1st ed. Detroit. Michigan: Gale Research, 1994. (FHL book 973 V34ce.) Lists over 22,000 cemeteries alphabetically by state, county, and cemetery name. Entries may list geographical location or mailing address, phone and fax numbers, contact information for cemetery record keepers, years of operation, and religious and other affiliations.
Information from many Jewish cemeteries can be found on the Internet. Use a search engine and search the topics: cemetery, Jewish, (name of town).
For information (photos and Inscriptions) from Jewish Cemeteries in the UK see http://www.cemeteryscribes.com
For help in converting the Hebrew dates on the tombstones see http://stevemorse.org/jcal/jcal.html.
The mission of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies’ (IAJGS) International Jewish Cemetery Project is to catalogue every Jewish burial site throughout the world. Jewish cemetery or burial sites are listed by town or city, country, and geographic region, based on current locality designation. Information under each listing includes history, size, exact location, etc. Some listings include links to other websites with additional information such as burial lists or contact information. The project is ongoing. The IAJGS International Jewish Cemetery Project can be found at:
The JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) is a database of names and other identifying information from cemeteries and burial records worldwide, from the earliest records to the present. As of October 2006, this database lists a total of 1,447 Cemeteries and a total of 629,986 burials; the project is ongoing. The JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry can be found at:
Other sources to check for cemetery records include:
The present cemetery caretaker, synagogue, or funeral home.
A local library, historical society, or local historian. If they don’t have the records, they can help you locate obscure family plots or relocated cemeteries.
Cemetery associations, which sometimes publish inventories or transcripts for their areas.
Transcripts of gravestone information that are published by genealogical periodicals or by others in individual books.
Records of Jewish burial societies (khevrah kadisha). Burial societies in Jewish communities were responsible for burying the dead. Records they may have kept would be similar in content to those kept by cemetery caretakers. Names of society members and the amount of dues they paid may also be recorded.
Lists of soldiers’ graves are described in United States Military Records.
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has copies and indexes of many cemetery and tombstone records but has limited records of Jewish cemeteries. Examples of published Jewish cemetery records include:
- Margolinsky, Jul. Transcript of 298 epitaphs from the Jewish Cemetery in St. Thomas, W.I., 1837–1916, with Index. [s.l.: s.n.], 1957. (FHL film 1013426, item 18.)
- Muneles, Otto and Milada Vilímková. Starý idovsky hbitov v Praze (Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague). Praha: Státní pedagogické nakladatelství, 1955. (FHL book 943.71/P3 V3m; film 1181638, item 6.) Tombstone inscriptions from the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. Includes pictures of tombstones. Another book on the same cemetery was published in 1903 (FHL book 943.71/P3 V3j; film 1181915, item 9.)
- Weyl, Robert. Le Cimetière Juif de Rosenwiller (The Jewish Cemetery in Rosenwiller). Strassbourg: Editions Salde, 1988. (FHL book 944.3835/R1 V3w.) Includes pictures of tombstones with inscriptions recorded in Hebrew, French, and German and notes about each one. From the town of Rosenwiller in Alsace-Loraine (now in France).
- Wolf, Egon. Sepulturas de israelitas – II: Uma pesquisa em mais de trinta cemitérios não israelitas (Jewish Burials: a Search in More than Thirty Non-Jewish Cemeteries). Rio de Janeiro: Cemitério Comunal Israelita, 1983. (FHL book 981 V3w.)
Check for records of this type in the Family History Library Catalog.
For information about inscriptions published in periodicals, see Jewish Periodicals and Jewish_Cemeteries. Also search this Wiki for "Periodicals" and for "Cemeteries" for the country or state where your ancestor lived.
Funeral Home Records
Funeral directors or undertakers in the area where your ancestors lived may have records similar to death and cemetery records. Most of the addresses for those in the United States are found in:
- American Blue Book of Funeral Directors. New York: National Funeral Directors Association, biennial. (FHL book 973 U24a.)
The Family History Library has some funeral home and undertaker records, which are listed in the Sub-ject Search of the Family History Library Catalog under "Business and Commerce" or "Cemeteries."