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The Jewish View of Cremation

The Jewish View of Cremation

Death involves not just the body, but also the soul.

by

With today's high cost of burial – casket, tombstone, plot of land – many are opting for cremation. What is the Jewish position?

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)

This is reiterated in Deuteronomy 21:23 which insists on burial directly into the ground. By preventing a burial from taking place, one negates this mitzvah.

The body is more than just a physical shell.

The body is to be treated with great respect because it is through the vessel of the physical body that we have fulfilled our mission in life. The body is thus more than just a physical shell; it is a holy instrument.

A Jewish burial honors the body and treats it with respect. The body is watched over and lovingly cleaned. It is placed in simple white shrouds, and then in a coffin of wood.

Cremation, on the other hand, is destructive and denigrating. In the same way we don’t burn holy books, so too the body was a vehicle for the soul and should be treated with gentle respect.

Body and Soul

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. Burial allows the soul the time to slowly depart the body and to become accustomed to its new heavenly abode.

This decay is crucial, which is why Jewish law forbids embalming or burial in a mausoleum, which would delay the decaying process.

Jewish law dictates that burial take place as soon as possible after death. (In Israel, funerals often take place on the same day as the death.) Also, Jews are buried in a wooden casket, which decays more rapidly. 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 an 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)

Biblical examples of death by burning are considered examples of disgrace or tragedy. (see Genesis 38:34; Leviticus 20:14, 21:9; Joshua 7:15, 25)

After the Holocaust it is imponderable that a Jew could agree to be cremated.

People think that cremation is antiseptic and wholesome. “One moment a body, the next moment a sealed urn of fine ashes.” The reality of cremation is more accurately described as a carcass roasting in fire. (Think of the smell when you leave something too long in the oven.) It takes about two hours to roast a human body at 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. And then comes the grinder to make sure that the bones which were not reduced to ashes will fit into the urn. Brooms are then used to sweep out the ashes. (These brooms are not always cleaned well, so different people's ashes are sometimes mixed together. Crematoriums actually have a disclaimer to this fact.)

After the Holocaust it is imponderable that a Jew could agree to be cremated.

What about the millions of Jews cremated in Nazi ovens? The Almighty certainly guarded their souls from needless agony.

Resurrection

Jewish tradition records that with burial, a single bone in the back of the neck never decays. It is from this bone – the luz bone – that the human body will be rebuilt in the future Messianic era when the souls of the departed will be reunited with their bodies.

The idea of resurrection is a fundamental belief of Judaism, as expressed in Maimonides' classical "13 Principles of Faith."

With cremation, that bone can be destroyed, and the resurrection process stymied. Thus the Talmud states that one who chooses cremation will not merit the resurrection.

These are very deep spiritual matters, and it is unwise to get swept away in trends. Although some may not believe in these Jewish traditions, burial is an insurance policy against mistaken belief. This is one decision which can have eternal consequences.


Sources:

  • Zohar 1:122b
  • Jerusalem Talmud – Moed Katan 3:5
  • Beit Yitzhak – Yoreh Deah 2:195
  • Achiezer 3:72:4
  • Maimonides – Laws of Sanhedrin 15:8
  • Midrash Rabba – Genesis 28:3
  • Mishnah – Sanhedrin 10:1

Published: January 22, 2000


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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Anonymous, June 29, 2011 5:39 PM

Thank-you so much1

I apreciate this information.

(7) Anonymous, June 26, 2011 4:24 PM

Organ donation?

Very interesting post, I do believe should be a distinction between voluntary and involuntary cremation. Also wasn't there allusion to resurrection in Ezekiel? And finally what is the Jewish view on organ donation? I know it is more important than anything to save a life, (including Yom Kippur) in Judaism, so would that translate over to giving parts of your body so another might live?

(6) Judith, July 25, 2010 3:11 PM

Luz bone cannot be destroyed

I learned that the luz bone cannot be destroyed: The medrash says that the Roman Emperor Hadrian asked how man would be revived in the world to come, and Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananiah replied that it would be "From Luz, in the back-bone." "Prove this to me," said Hadrian. Then the Rabbi took Luz, a small bone of the spine, and immersed it in water, but it was not softened; he put it into the fire, but it was not consumed; he put it into a mill, but it could not be pounded; he placed it upon an anvil and struck it with a hammer, but the anvil split and the hammer was broken. Rabbi Nissan Mangel, a child survivor of Auschwitz, says that even after Jewish bodies were burned in the crematoria, a small bone always remained.

(5) Anonymous, September 13, 2009 11:03 PM

I HAVE MIXED EMOTIONS ON HOW ONE SHOULD BE BURIED. IF WE CHOOSE TO BE BURIED IN THE GROUND IN A PLAIN BOX, YOU ARE SAYING THAT THIS WILL HELP THE SOUL SEPARATE FROM THE BODY AND THE PROCESS WILL GO QUICKER AND WE WILL BE WITH HASHEM QUICKER? HOWEVER, THE AVAILABLE LAND ON OUR EARTH IS SO LIMITED. WOULDN'T HASHEM RESPECT US FOR OUR CHOICE OF SAVING THE PLANET AND OUR CHOICE OF CREMATION & OUR ASHES TO BE SPREAD BACK TO THE EARTH TO BE A GOOD THING? MY PARENTS ARE BURIED IN THE GROUND. I PURCHASED MANY YEARS AGO 2 PLOTS SO MY CHILDREN WOULDN'T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT A FUNERAL ETC. I AM REMARRIED NOW TO A MAN WHOSE WHOLE FAMILY HAS CHOSEN CREMATION AND THE URN IS PLACED IN A MOSELEAM. I TOLD HIM I DID NOT WANT THAT FOR MYSELF. HOWEVER, I THOUGHT IT WAS OKAY TO BE BURIED ABOVE GROUND. FROM THE ARTICLES ON THIS SITE, IT SAYS THAT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE EITHER. ARE YOU TELLING ME THAT ALL THE JEWS THAT HAVE MADE THESE CHOICES WILL NOT BE WITH HASHEM? I FIND THIS VERY UNSETTLING.

(4) Hannah Kneale, October 7, 2003 12:00 AM

You're very helpful!!

Thanks, learn something new every day :o)

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