Tattoos. Body ink. Body art. These are uncommon words in Jewish culture because there is a belief among many Jewish people that one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have a tattoo. This belief is purely a myth.
While the Torah states that you should not desecrate the body (and therefore voluntarily getting a tattoo is not allowed), this doesn’t exclude one from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. There is no basis for restricting burial to individuals who violate this prohibition. The decision to bury Jewish people with tattoos is left to the individual society or synagogue burial ground.
But how is a misconception like this perpetuated throughout the years? There are a few possible reasons for this:
Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.” This refers to any kind of permanent marking or engraving on the skin. The content of the tattoo has no bearing on the decision. A tattoo of any kind is a desecration of the body.
Committing one sin does not exclude you from Judaism. Getting a tattoo is like any other violation of Torah law. It does not prohibit one from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. The emphasis on tattoos compared to other sins is perhaps due to the fact that tattoos are permanent, so the transgression is still visible and evident. That said, there is nothing in Jewish law that states that individuals with tattoos should not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
A common Jewish belief is that you should keep your body as it was given to you, not alter it. This comes from the idea that the human body is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. The body is sacred and should be cared for in life and in death.
Body piercing can also be considered desecration. Like tattooing, piercing is seen as an alteration of the human body. Some Jewish people believe that because God is the one who grants life, He maintains full rights to the human body. It is improper to tamper with the body God gave us. Piercings, like tattoos, are considered self-inflicted wounds for the sake of beauty and fashion.
While the myth that one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have tattoos primarily comes from the Torah’s law that you shouldn’t mark the body, this notion also continues through the misconception created by individual societies and synagogue burial grounds that create their own rules and standards for burial.
Every Jewish society or burial ground reserves the right to forbid certain individuals from burial based on their own set of standards, including those with tattoos. Because some Jewish cemeteries enact these criteria, people have begun to believe that this is true for every Jewish cemetery. This is not the case. As a whole, a cemetery will allow an individual to be buried if they have tattoos.