Judaism and Cremation

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Although practiced for most of human history in one form or another, cremation has traditionally been frowned upon by the Jewish community. However, nowhere in the Torah (“The Law”—the five books of Moses) or the Talmud (a record of rabbinic discussion of Jewish law and tradition) is this practice expressly forbidden.

If you are Jewish and interested in cremation, you may be wondering what your faith commands with regard to the practice. As with other issues in Judaism, there is a large body of work arguing both sides of this controversy, and where you come down on the topic will probably depend on whether you consider yourself to be an Orthodox Jew or a Reform Jew.

According to some Jewish scholars, the source of the taboo is Deuteronomy 21:23: “You shall surely bury him the same day,” referring to the victim of a hanging. This has been interpreted as a divine decree to bury the dead in the ground, near the location of their death, rather than cremate them. However, this interpretation is not universal, with authorities coming down both for and against the acceptance of cremation in modern Jewish funeral practice.

Desecration of the body is expressly forbidden in Jewish law, and, for some, cremation (as well as embalming) is desecration. The body is seen as one component of a complex and utlimately spiritual being, not as a mere husk or container for the soul. Therefore desecration of the body is no different from desecration of the spirit. This view is especially prevalent among conservative and Orthodox Jews; however, if cremation is performed to protect or honor the dead, it is acceptable. Liberal and Reform Jews generally accept the practice, although even in these faith traditions, burial is preferred.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, cremation became more acceptable to European Jews as Jewish cemetaries began to fill up, anticipating one of the most powerful environmental arguments in favor of the practice. In fact, growing thought among the liberal, Reform Jews, is that cremation may be seen as a mitzvah, or a “good deed” meant to ease the burden on family and the planet.

The memory of the Holocaust also plays a role in the current controversy among Jews over cremation. In the minds of many, cremation brings to mind the disposal of bodies in the Nazi death camps of World War II.

There is some argument as well about what to do with Jewish cremains. If a Jewish person has requested in their will to be cremated, is it acceptable to bury them in a Jewish cemetary? Many, but not all traditional authorities forbid this because it would be seen as encouraging cremation. On the other hand, some traditional authorities see a refusal to accept the cremains as a violation of the decree to bury the dead. Some in the conservative Jewish movement see the burial of ashes in a Jewish ceremony as acceptable as long as there is no Rabbinical participation.

In the end, it seems that the most generally agreed-upon tenant of Judaism regarding the disposition of the dead, is that they be honored by burial, regardless of whether they have been cremated.

So, as a Jew, the question is: Can you be cremated or cremate the body of a deceased loved one? That largely seems to depend upon whether you consider yourself to be a conservative or a liberal Jew. If you are a Reform Jew, it is probably OK for you to begin your cremation planning now. If you are Orthodox or conservative, probably not. In either case, it is always a good idea to discuss decisions on cremation and burial with your Rabbi, who will have information on the theological and practical arguments of this issue.

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