Updated 9:40 a.m.
When a Jew dies, it swiftly sets in motion a succession of ancient customs, often carried out by the local community. The body is guarded until burial. A special group — called a “holy society” in Hebrew — prepares the body for burial in a custom called the tahara, the purification.
Prayers are said over it, it is cleaned with water and finally wrapped in a plain shroud. In so doing, the holy society ushers the soul into its next stage: judgment before God.
But what happens when the person is sure to be judged most harshly? What happens when that person is Jeffrey Epstein?
New York’s chief medical examiner ruled Epstein’s death a suicide; he died in prison on August 10 while in federal custody. Already, the treatment of his body has deviated from Jewish norms. Jewish burials happen within one to three days and Epstein’s corpse awaits a second, independent autopsy. Numerous additional traditions govern the process of Jewish death, and experts say the Epstein case is so unusual they can’t be sure what will happen to him now.
“The prayers associated with the tahara ask God to have mercy on the person,” says David Zinner, the executive director of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, which provides training in Jewish burial practices. “Does Jeffrey Epstein deserve mercy? I’m not so sure about that.”
Epstein was being kept at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, a jail that has been described as less hospitable than Guantanamo Bay. The MCC has a chaplaincy program, which has had rabbis from various denominations over the years. When reached by the Forward, Rabbi Jacob Hoenig, a chaplain at MCC in recent years, declined to comment.
Jewish burial customs are based on the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally, they are “guarded” by the chevra kadisha, the holy society — people, frequently volunteers, who sit with the body, usually at the funeral home. They are then interred without any formaldehyde treatment, in an untreated pine box, wrapped in a white shroud.
Zinner said that he wouldn’t be surprised if a chevra kedisha outright declined to receive Epstein’s remains because of his alleged crimes.
“There’s a question of, would some tahara teams decline doing a tahara for someone who is — not of upstanding moral character, let’s put it that way. Although it’s a lot worse than that,” he said.
Yet Isaac Pollak, head of the chevra kadisha on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Epstein lived in New York, said his group would have performed the traditional rites for Epstein, but he had not been contacted by any synagogue in the area regarding Epstein’s remains.
“We work with everybody who wants to meet their maker in the traditional way,” he said.
Two of the largest Jewish funeral homes in Manhattan, Riverside Memorial Chapel and the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, said they have not been contacted about receiving Epstein’s remains. The Hebrew Free Burial Association, which arranges burials for Jewish inmates who do not have family to receive their body, also said they have not been contacted.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which manages the MCC, declined to comment beyond Attorney General William Barr’s statement on Epstein’s death.
“If there’s a family, then the family can take out the body and bury him the way they want to,” said Rabbi Herbert D. Richtman, a retired chaplain who primarily served the Rikers Island jail complex. “If there is no family, but the chaplain is aware of the fact that there is a free burial society that would accept the body, there is a cemetery on Staten Island and they can bury him there.”
Epstein did have family: his brother, Mark Epstein. Last month, during Epstein’s bail hearings, Mark Epstein offered to put Epstein up at a condo in Florida to await trial. (Epstein was denied bail.) The brothers are tied financially through other investments and businesses. When reached by the Forward, Epstein’s brother Mark Epstein declined to comment.
Epstein’s parents are buried in a small cemetery west of Fort Lauderdale, just across the highway from the Florida Everglades, called Menorah Gardens and Memorial Chapel. A representative for Menorah Gardens who declined to give their full name said that they had not been contacted by the Epstein family about his remains. Epstein’s parents moved to Florida after raising Epstein and his brother in Sea Gate, a gated community at the far western end of Coney Island, in Brooklyn.
The Talmud instructs people executed for crimes to be buried, but says that “We do not bury a wicked person next to a righteous one.”
Historically, criminals have fared better in seeking Jewish burial than the blameless. In 1999, a Jewish-born minister for Jews for Jesus was refused burial in a Toronto Jewish cemetery. Israeli cemeteries have been exposed as refusing to bury gay people.
As for the gangsters of the 19th and 20th centuries, Robert Rockaway, a professor emeritus of history at Tel Aviv University, said he couldn’t think of a single instance of a Jewish criminal being refused Jewish burial.
“The rabbis make allowances,” added Rockaway, the author of “But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.” “Basically it’s because you don’t want to have the family suffer because of the crimes of this particular person.”
Most Jewish sources, including the Chabad movement of Orthodox Judaism and the more lenient Reform movement, say that although suicide is against Jewish law, those who die by suicide can still be buried in Jewish cemeteries — though Chabad’s website states that the suicide victim would likely have to be separated from others because of the separation of “wicked” and “righteous” remains.
Epstein’s heirs, such as his brother, could sue the government for not preventing the suicide. Criminal forfeiture of Epstein’s assets is unlikely, because his case did not end in a guilty verdict. His brother stands to inherit what remains of Epstein’s estate, which he valued at over $550 million in recent court filings.
Mark Epstein is a director of the Humpty Dumpty Institute, a think tank that focuses on long-term humanitarian issues, and a donor to the Cooper Union school, as well as various New York City arts programs.
Zinner said that this may be an instructive case for the Jewish community to consider how it buries the bodies of people who have done evil things.
“I don’t know of an example in a situation like this,” he said. “I don’t know that the Jewish community has a way of acknowledging that while this person may have been Jewish, they were an embarrassment. What do we do?”