I want to be cremated,but my sister is very upset with my decision as she thinks if one is cremated one loses one's soul whereas if one is buried she says we'd be united again in heaven. She is Orthodox and I am a Reform Jew. Does she have any validity according to Jewish law?
The issue of cremation is more of a this worldly issue than a next worldly issue. Jewish Law clearly prohibits cremation as a way of disposing of a human body for a number of very sensitive reasons. First, cremation is considered an act of bizui hamet, degrading the dead person. In the same way that a Jewish person would be abhorred by the active and volitional burning of aTorah scroll which is only ink and parchment containing the Divine word, so too is he abhorred by the burning of human flesh and blood, the image that G-d assigned to contain His divine spark, our Neshama (soul). Second, from a cultural and historic perspective, after the crematoriums of Auschwitz with which the Nazis demonstrated their disdain for the very bodies of the Jews they murdered, cremation becomes for some of us an anathema seemingly validating the Nazi view of the Jewish body. Furthermore, when we treat a lifeless body with care and respect we are reminded to treat a living person with at least as much care and respect.
On of the greatest Mitzvot that a person can perform is preparing a body for burial. This is done by a group called the Chevrah Kadishah, the Holy Community, that every Jewish community organizes. I am unaware of a legal tradition that says one loses one's soul if one is cremated (outside of some mystical traditions that perceive cremation as agony for the soul) . The violation of Jewish Law falls on the relatives contracting the cremation rather than the deceased. However, if they are following the instructions of the deceased and they are unfamiliar and uninvolved with Jewish Law, it would seem only logical that the deceased is implicated in the act of cremation and the consequences in heaven is above my pay grade to discern.
The short answer is no-- there is no such thing as "losing one's soul" and one's place in the World to Come has nothing to do with the state of the body after death. I might ask your sister if she believes that the victims of the Holocaust, literally millions cremated against their will, are denied access to Heaven on that account?
Your sister is right, however, that Jewish law does stronlgly insist on burial, rather than cremation. The reason for this is the principle of "kavod ha-met"- the respect afforded to a body, which was the vehicle for a soul. Our Tradition has maintained that we honor a body best by preserving it intact, and returning it to the Earth to follow the natural process of returning to its source.
While it is certainly true that both Orthodox and Conservative traditions forbid cremation as a proper method of interment, I have never heard it said that if one is cremated, one loses one’s soul. Judaism has many different and inconsistent beliefs concerning the afterlife and the soul (an excellent compilation of these is presented in Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael (Jason Aronson, 1994 – 474 pages), but, to my knowledge there is no Jewish law on what one must believe.
When confronted with such questions as to what happens to us and our souls in the next world, my response is always “God knows.” I certainly don’t know.
It is instructive that (in the words of a Reform Rabbis responsum on the subject – www.http://ccarnet.org/responsa/nyp-no-5766-2/) “there is no clear and obvious prohibition against cremation in the sources of Jewish law and that “the Orthodox agitation against cremation actually began about a century ago” in response to the growing movement toward cremation in Western societies. … There is no explicit requirement in the Biblical text that the dead be buried rather than cremated. The sources make clear that burial was the normative practice in ancient Israel, but nowhere do we find an express prohibition of the burning of the corpse.”
In my opinion, there are really four issues at work regarding the Jewish attitude towards cremation. 1. Does cremation violate the biblical requirement (Deut. 21:23) to bury the dead? 2. Does cremation violate the requirement that we treat the dead with respect? Does cremation constitute an act of heresy in denying the concept of physical resurrection of the dead with the coming of the Messiah? 4. Is cremation especially problematic in light of the Holocaust? I will address each.
1 & 2. So long as the cremation and disposal of the remains is dignified, I do not believe the spirit of the requirement to bury the deceased and treat the remains with dignity is violated. One could question whether keeping the remains in an urn on the mantle would meet the requirement, however.
3. Reform Judaism has moved away from the literal belief in physical resurrection so this is much less of an issue for us. It also seems inconsistent to believe that the Holy One, having power to bring the long decomposed dead back to life would not be able to do so due to cremation. I am trained as a physicist and note that cremation and natural decomposition are really the same process, oxidation of the organic hydrocarbon remains – they just operate on different timeframes.
4. While I respect the sensitivities of those offended by cremation in light of the mass cremation of Jews and others by the Nazis, I am not convinced that the two processes are the same. Forced, mass cremation after mass murder is very different than following the wishes of one who elects this option. Furthermore, I have met families of Holocaust survivors who have elected to be cremated as a statement of solidarity with the fate of their relatives.
Judaism’s focus is on this world and I pray that your loving relationship with your sister and family will not be hurt by your beliefs about the next world.
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