A friend of mine was buried by a landslide while his wife was just a few feet away. People pitched in to dig him out and had two-thirds of his body out, blue but probably alive, when the hillside shifted again and buried him under six feet of dirt. He died before they could dig him out. His widow stated that she was going to have him cremated as "I can't bear to put him in the ground again."
She had him cremated and scattered his ashes at a favorite campground stream where they had enjoyed happy times. I know that the usual circumstance is that a person is buried, but under these conditions was the widow not justified in ordering a cremation since she needed to deal with her grief? In this case, which is more important – traditional ritual for the dead, or the needs of the living widow?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
This is a terrible tragedy and I can understand the torment of the widow. But Judaism permits only burial. The source for this comes from the Torah, where God tells Adam: "You will return to the ground, for it was from the ground that you were taken" (Genesis 3:19).
Judaism forbids cremation; let's understand why.
Upon death, the soul goes through a painful separation from the body, which until now had housed the soul. This process of disengagement occurs as the body decays. When the body is buried, it decays slowly, thereby giving comfort to the soul as it disengages from the body.
This decay is crucial, which is why Jewish law forbids embalming or burial in a mausoleum, which would in fact delay the decaying process. Also, Jews are buried in a wooden casket, which decays more rapidly. Similarly, Jewish law dictates that burial take place as soon as possible after death. (In Israel, funerals are often on the same day as the death.) All this is for the benefit of the soul.
One reason that Judaism prohibits cremation is that the soul would suffer great shock due to the unnaturally sudden disengagement from the body. As the Talmud says: Burial is not for the sake of the living, but rather for the dead. (Sanhedrin 47a)
Furthermore, Jewish tradition records that with burial, a single bone in the back of the neck never decays. It is from this bone – called the Luz bone – that the human body will be rebuilt in the future messianic era when all the dead will be resurrected. With cremation, that bone can be destroyed, and the resurrection process stymied.
In fact, someone who chooses cremation is as if he does not believe in resurrection. This is a fundamental of Judaism, as expressed in Maimonides' classical "13 Principles of Faith": "I believe with complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead, whenever the wish emanates from the Creator."
What about the millions of Jews cremated in Nazi ovens? The Almighty certainly guarded their souls from needless agony. I think similarly in this case, where the man did not ask to be cremated, his soul is not accountable for what transpired.
May you be consoled at this time of loss.
(sources: Beit Yitzchak – Y.D. 2:195, based on Talmud – Temura 34a; Achiezer 3:72:4, based on Deut. 21:23, and Maimonides – Laws of Sanhedrin 15:8)