We are all familiar with the Jewish burial practices of today. Jews take great care to treat the deceased with respect. The body is purified by special volunteers who clothe it in shrouds and place it in a simple wooden box (in Israel the body is usually buried in the ground without a box) so that the body can decompose, fulfilling the passage in Bereshit 3:19 – “for you are dust and to the dust you shall return.”
During the time of the Mishna the standard burial practice was different. In those days, relatives placed the deceased in a burial cave, where the body was allowed to decompose for a year. After the year was over, the relatives would enter the cave and remove the bones, transferring them to the family burial cave for permanent interment.
In the Mishna on our daf, Rabbi Meir teaches that a person can gather his parents’ bones on Hol HaMoed to transfer them to their permanent resting place, since it is a joyous day for him. Rabbi Yose argues that it is a day of mourning for the son and can thus not be scheduled for Hol HaMoed.
Rashi explains Rabbi Meir’s position based on the fact that it is a relief to the individual who successfully brings a relative to his/her final resting place in the family burial cave. The Yerushalmi, however, sees the joy of the occasion in seeing that the flesh has decomposed, which indicates that the person’s sins have been forgiven. The Ra’avya suggests another approach – that the child is happy that the maggots are no longer gnawing on the flesh of his/her parents.
Rabbi Yose’s position appears much simpler to understand. Seeing one’s parents’ bones would appear to be an obvious reason for sadness and mourning. Nevertheless, Rabbeinu Yehonatan suggests another explanation. According to him, seeing the bones reminds the child of his own impending death, which saddens him to the extent that it should not be done on Hol HaMoed.