Parents tell their teenagers, “You can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you get a tattoo.” This often repeated tale is meant to dissuade young adults from following the example of their peers and engraving a tattoo on their bodies. To be honest, the tale is not true.
Tattooing is of course contrary to Jewish tradition, but it would not by itself constitute a reason for the denial of burial rites. Perhaps people suggest it would do so because it is a visible sign, even following death, that the person was not observant of Jewish law. But some people observe many Jewish traditions. Others observe few. The denial of burial for any person would show a supreme lack of compassion in the face of tragedy.
Interestingly the biblical verses prohibiting tattooing connect tattooing to mourning rituals. Our Torah portion states: “You are the children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God; the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people.” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)
Apparently in ancient times tattooing was associated with mourning. According to biblical scholars removing of hair and gashing the flesh until blood runs were common mourning rituals. People believed that these acts had an effect on the ghost of the deceased. Or perhaps these acts were performed as self-punishment to assuage feelings of guilt. Judaism however counsels that we tear our garment rather than our flesh. In addition Jewish custom advises men to refrain from shaving when mourning. We are commanded to do the opposite of what our neighbors do.
I understand that tattooing for the dead is a powerful emotional response to grief. People inscribe a name or a symbol on their body as a sign of mourning. It is especially common among soldiers. It is an understandable impulse. Mourners promise themselves that they will never forget, that they must never forget. Inscribing the memory on their bodies fulfills this impulse. It as if to say, “Now I will always remember.” Judaism insists however that memories must be built on stories and words.
Again and again the Torah seeks to distinguish its traditions from those of Israel’s neighbors. Tattooing was viewed as something connected with idolatry. Moreover the Jewish tradition believes that the human body is created in God’s image. We are to care for the body because it is a reflection of the divine. We therefore do not defame the body in any way. The Talmud rules that we are therefore forbidden to inscribe a permanent tattoo on the body, although there is some debate as to whether or not the prohibition only applies to a tattoo with God’s name.
I often think that in addition to the tradition’s reasons we should give weight to modern Jewish history. During the Holocaust Jews were of course forcibly tattooed with numbers. We should therefore not choose to do this to ourselves. This is what our enemies did to us. Let us not do the same.
Parents can of course resort to tales of denying burial rites in order to convince children to obey this prohibition, but I prefer making arguments based on modern Jewish history and the Jewish value that the human body is a reflection of the divine. Of course teenagers being teenagers they may very well not listen to such logic. Their desire is to be like their peers. The Torah wants us to be unlike our neighbors.
Of course in the end the primary job of parents is to love their children.