Reading your website concerning cremation, it appears the more liberal sects in Judaism discourage it, but tolerate the wishes of those who choose it, while the more observant or strict sects absolutely discourage or prohibit it, on various grounds.
My thought was that cremation would be a way to be in solidarity with those who died in the WWII ovens, 9/11 and so forth, that their death circumstance was not a dishonor to them. A cremation, in my view, would dignify their situation. I do understand that the circumstance was not their choice, but nonetheless, it is their factual situation.
Also, cremation would solve a problem for me personally. I'm a widow with two spouses buried in two states. Having two cremation urns would allow me to spend eternity with my two basherts, which would save me from making a choice of whom to be buried near.
Any thoughts? Given what I read on your site about what Judaism says, is there any leeway? What Jewish values might help me to decide this issue, and resolve my problem concerning choosing which husband I should be buried with?
Although your question is best addressed by a discussion in person, and with a rabbi who knows you and your family, I will share some initial thoughts to help you think through these challenging questions.
I certainly empathize with the pain inherent in your question, but I do not think that cremation would be an effective or appropriate manner of identifying with your relatives who were murdered by the Nazis.
Cremation has always been antithetical to the Jewish ideal of natural burial in the ground, and I can only assume that the notion of being cremated was antithetical to the core values of your relatives. Choosing to be buried in the traditional Jewish manner would thus be the best revenge you could take against the Nazis. Furthermore, enemies of the Jewish people have cremated Jews throughout history as a symbolic way of trying to completely destroy us forever. Intentionally doing this to yourself in order to identify with Hitler’s victims would thus be granting him a posthumous victory. Indeed, one of the great rabbis who was imprisoned in a concentration camp was asked a haunting question about this issue during the holocaust, by a Jew who was pretending to be German. The Jew wondered if it would be better to have himself cremated rather than be buried with a cross, surrounded by Nazi corpses. The rabbi responded that this manner of burial would still be preferable to cremation!
While your concern about being buried in proximity to both of your husbands is certainly valid, it does not seem to me that having ashes placed in each location would adequately address the problem. First, some may have the impression that while part of you is in both places, you are in neither place completely. Second, because people often don’t treat cremated remains with the same respect as intact bodies, there is a major potential problem of cremated remains being misplaced. These remains lack permanence, and there is no guarantee that your ashes will actually remain in both locations alongside your husbands’ graves in perpetuity.
In terms of your question related to Jewish values for choosing which spouse to be buried next to, when there is no specific preference the following guidelines are often taken into account:
One should ideally be buried next to the one who is the parent to your children.
If you had children with both, one is usually buried with their first spouse.
(See also “Cremation or Burial: A Jewish View” By Kornbluth)
Genesis 3:19 teaches “for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Deuteronomy 21:23 warns that an unburied corpse is an affront to God. These texts, and others, underscore the Jewish tradition’s value of in-ground burial. Moreover, the notion that human beings are created in God’s likeness has led the Jewish tradition to stress a strong taboo on cremation specifically. Burning a body to ashes intentionally violates the integrity of an image of God, representing an affront to God’s honor as well as the deceased individual’s. Cremation has taken on a new level of repugnance among Jews after the Holocaust, when “millions of Jews were murdered and their bodies burnt to ash” (Carl N. Astor, “The Jewish Life Cycle,” in The Observant Life, p. 293). In our time, far from an expression of solidarity with the victims of the Shoah (and, by extension, with the victims of other atrocities like the 9/11 attacks), cremation has come to feel, in a sense, like engaging in a cruel partnership with the brutal perpetrators.
It must be acknowledged, though, that the taboo against cremation is far from an open-and-shut case from a Jewish legal point of view. Some medieval poskim (rabbinic jurists) took what could be considered permissive stances on the practice. For example, the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Abraham Gombiner, Poland, 17th Century) writes “it is no disgrace when a corpse is burned” (Commentary to Shulhan Arukh, OrahHayyim 311:1). While the most recent Conservative Movement guide to religious practice says that “cremation, considered the ultimate expression of disrespect to the dead, is absolutely forbidden in all instances” (Astor 293), the older guide simply says that the practice is “frowned upon” (Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, 275).
Despite this, I think there are basic and ubiquitous Jewish values, like those mentioned in the first paragraph, which strongly disapprove of (and perhaps even forbid) cremation. Indeed, I think the lack of a strong stance against cremation in the ancient and medieval literature is not a product of rabbinic ambivalence toward the practice. Instead, it should be attributed to the fact that Jews generally and without objection accepted and observed the taboo in earlier eras. While ancient and medieval authorities tackle many questions regarding burial laws, few deal specifically with cremation. It seems logical to infer from this that the question simply did not come up. Had the issue arisen, I am willing to bet that they would have emphatically stated that cremation violated Jewish values and law.
Today, more Jews, for various reasons, are requesting cremation for themselves or loved ones. Because of the rising prevalence of the practice, rabbis are responding with ever-stronger language that the practice flies in the face of Jewish values and law.
Regarding the specific circumstance of the questioner, I am sensitive to the problems this presents for you regarding the different burial places of your two departed husbands. In some circumstances – and it sounds like yours might qualify – Jewish tradition permits exhumation and reburial, which is an option, perhaps, that you might consider for one of your “two basherts” so that you all can be buried together. I also want to remind you that it is the soul, and not the body, that lives on in eternity in the World to Come. Regardless of where any of you are buried (and may you continue to live with joy and good health to 120!), I believe your soul will be bound in the bonds of everlasting life with the souls of both your beloved husbands.
The content of this query raises several vital matters, albeit this attenuated format does not permit the fullest exploration of the issues and the emotions involved. In short, I urge you to initiate conversation on these questions with closest family and – it wouldn't hurt – with a Rabbi or Cantor too. And I acknowledge, as one who embraces autonomy in decision-making, that I would be able to support your decisions, even if they would not be my choices.
Some of the matters to consider: will members of the family be distressed by the choice of cremation? While as a liberal Rabbi, I do participate in memorial services – that is a gathering where a body has been or will be cremated – I am concerned that there is always an echo of the Holocaust, at least for some in attendance. I do not find the notion convincing or compelling that cremation may establish some kind of solidarity with the victims and thereby elevate their deaths. I just don't connect with the concept that embracing a decision they were denied accomplishes something positive for anyone. Indeed, the Nazis' choice to burn Jewish bodies was an effort to deny even that final aspect of our human dignity.
By the way, one may understand the foundation of Jewish tradition's opposition to cremation in recognizing the same logic with its stance vis-à-vis embalming. One artificially slows a natural process; the other artificially accelerates it.
As to where you might choose to be buried, I know of no absolutes in Jewish tradition, other than a reference to the "love of one's youth," that would be determinative.
Bottom line: let your heart (and consultation with loved ones and an advisor) be your guide.
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