Is it true that you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo?

Answered by
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz

As Jews, we believe that the human body is created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. The body is our vehicle for performing mitzvot, our sacred obligations. For that reason, we are vigilant about honoring and caring for the body, in life as well as in death. 

In the Bible, we find that respect for the body translates to keeping it free from unnecessary permanent markings: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves. I am the Eternal" (Leviticus 19:28). This aversion to tattoos was likely a response to customs of the Israelites' pagan neighbors. After the Holocaust, many in the Jewish community became even more opposed to tattoos, since many Jews had been forcibly tattooed while imprisoned in concentration camps.

In recent years, tattoos have become more common in the Jewish community. Some of them even display Hebrew words or Jewish symbols and are an expression of a person's Jewish identity. Additionally, there are instances where a person might be tattooed as part of necessary medical care, such as radiation therapy or reconstructive surgery. These tattoos are absolutely permitted for the purpose of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, a value that transcends almost any other Jewish law.

While the Jewish community might still be divided over tattoos, the prohibition against burying a tattooed person in a Jewish cemetery is a myth. Caring for the body after death is also a mitzvah, and we don't exclude people in our communities from that care simply because of markings on the skin.