I have a question for a rabbi. In a world where space is at a premium and I don't want to cause great financial strain for my family, why does Jewish tradition forbid me from choosing cremation as an option when I die? [JVO Kids: 4-6]
Traditionally asking to be cremated was considered a sign that one did not believe in the commandments because the oral law, the rabbis, insisted on burial. There are a number of reasons given for why the rabbis thought keeping the body intact and burying was important:
The rabbis understand based on verses in the torah that we must treat human bodies with utmost respect. Jewish or not Jewish we are not supposed to damage a body after the soul has left it.
The human body is considered to be created in the image of God. As it says in the creation story: man and woman were create in the image of God. This makes even the many different shapes of human bodies special.
Jews, for a long long time, have believed that a time will come when the dead will come back to life. Not like zombies. In a special time when there is peace and acceptance people will come back to life and life in happiness and togetherness. The rabbis understood that someone who had their body cremated was saying, "I don't believe that will happen and so I don't care about this body anymore."
But your question is about money and resources. A famous funny man once suggested that we get rid of all the cemeteries and golf courses and put up homes for the homeless. His suggestion, like yours, is that we have our priorities mixed up.
All people spend money on what they think is important. Some on golf, some on gold, some on TVs, cars, charity, medicines, and on and on. If we believe that burial is important because Jewish tradition thinks it is important than we should plan our lives and set money aside for this priority. (Many people do this. When people age they start a savings account to pay for their funeral so their family doesn't get stuck with a big bill.) There are other ways to manage this. Simple funerals and simple coffins make a big difference.
This all boils down to our connection to the laws of the torah and the rabbis. If we think they are important we should learn about them, make decisions and then invest, money and time, in fulfilling them.
First, I want to thank you for asking a very thoughtful and practical question, one that is challenging to answer because it is such a sensitive issue. Growing up, I attended Jewish day school, and I learned that above all, we are to treat one another with dignity and respect because we were created in the image of God. As a kid, it was hard to really understand what that means. Over the years, I’ve learned that there are some things, when it comes to our health, that are simply out of control. Some people get sick for unexplainable reasons, while others live healthy lives despite making unhealthy lifestyle choices. At the end of the day, we only have one body, and it is our responsibility to care for it to the best of our abilities, and similarly, to do the same for those around us. That is, in a way, what it means to be holy and sacred.
One of the pieces of Jewish tradition that I admire and respect the most is the customs and practices connected to death and dying. In a word, it’s all about dignity. When a person is dying, we do our best to keep them comfortable, free from pain and suffering, and surround them with friends and family who love them. And when that person dies, we make sure to honor the deceased by taking the utmost care of the person until the funeral takes place. For me, I think about the obligation in Judaism to bury through the lens of holiness and dignity.
Jewish tradition teaches that each person has both a body and a soul. Even after a person dies that person’s soul lives on forever, and it is the soul that makes each of us who we are. In a way, our body was a gift from God for us to use while alive, but when we pass on, the body returns to God, as we learn in the Torah that just as “God formed human beings from the dust of the earth,” so too shall return to the dust of the earth through natural means (Genesis 2:7). One of the main ways that we show kavod hamet, honor to the dead, is to take great care to bury our loved ones, allowing them to go back to God in a natural way. The Torah teaches us, “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken” (Genesis. 3:19). This is the basis for Jewish burial.
One of the other struggles that I have with cremation is connected to the Holocaust, a time in our history when the Nazis cremated our Jewish brothers and sisters as a way of disrespecting and showing no regard for us as human beings. In this case, cremation was an act of hate, not only because of how the Nazi’s treated us because of our Jewish identities, but because of the lack of respect the Nazi’s showed even after our ancestors had tragically died.
I think there is one more compelling reason why Jewish tradition speaks to burial. In addition to honoring the deceased, there is also a certain level of sacredness given to those mourning the loss of a loved one. Cremation in general, takes more time than burial. Often times, when waiting many days and even weeks for cremation to take place, it is hard to allow the family to begin mourning the loss because the burial has not yet taken place. In Judaism, burial takes place as soon as possible after a person has died, not only to honor the dead, but also to allow the mourners to begin grieving.
While I don’t think that finding space for burial as an imminent problem, I agree that the cost of burial is significantly higher than a burial. With that said, almost all communities have ways of supporting you and your family so that you can perform a Jewish burial without feeling the added financial burden during your time of loss. I encourage you to talk with your rabbi, local Jewish funeral home, and look into a free loan burial to receive the support you need as a way of honoring your loved one.
I pray that you and your loved ones live a long, healthy life, and that if God forbid you do face a loss of someone close to you, that you will be supported and comforted in your time of need, allowing both the deceased and those in mourning to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.
Thanks for the very thoughtful question! Judaism regards the body as a sacred gift from God. It is not merely a fleshy vessel for the soul, but a sacred object in and of itself (think of the many Morning Blessings that speak to the sacredness of the body, for example). As a sacred gift from God, we are therefore commanded to treat it with respect, and reducing it to ash is seen as disrespectful. That our people were sent to crematoria in the Holocaust adds to that sentiment. Having said that, many Jews do choose to be cremated, either for ethical or environmental or even economic reasons. If chosen, cremated remains should be treated respectfully, and buried in a cemetery with a funeral service as would happen under other circumstances. Answered by: Rabbi Yair Robinson
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