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Cremation: A Burning Issue

Cremation: A Burning Issue

Even after death, the body is a holy vessel that deserves respect.


Sybil Sage, a Jewish writer and artist living in New York, asked her son if he minded her plans to have her and his father cremated.

“How about I make urns for Dad and me?” she asked. “I can cover them with fun photos—family vacations, birthday parties, graduations.”

When her son eventually acquiesced, Ms. Sage designed an urn to hold her and her husband’s ashes and, she wrote recently in the Forward, friends subsequently commissioned her “to create personalized urns for family members or for pets.”

Related Article: Cremation

A decade ago, just over 20% of Americans who died were cremated. In 2005, the rate had risen to 32%. The Cremation Association of North America forecasts that by 2025 more than half of Americans will choose to have their remains burned rather than interred. While no one knows what percentage of American cremation-choosers are Jews, there is little doubt that, at least among Jews with limited or no Jewish education, cremation has become acceptable, even chic. Several years ago, a crematorium even opened in Israel.

Jews bereft of Jewish knowledge can hardly be faulted for not appreciating the concept of “kavod hameis,” the mandate to show “honor for the deceased,” a concept that underlies the Torah’s opposition to cremation, the very opposite of honor. They do not understand that the fact that human beings are created “in the image of God” entails, among much else, that human bodies whose souls have departed be consigned to the earth in as undisturbed a state as possible.

Many contemporary Jews, sadly, cannot even be expected to be familiar with the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead—even though it is one of Judaism’s most basic teachings, subtly evident in the Written Torah’s text and prominent in its Oral Tradition.

What shouldn’t be surprising, though, to any Jew—or non-Jew, for that matter—is that our bodies are invaluable. After all, they are the means by which we accomplish what we do on earth; if our lives are meaningful, then the flesh-and-blood vehicles that harbor our souls and wills in this life are the indispensable means of creating that meaning—most importantly, by performing God’s will. It is through employing our bodies to do good deeds and opposing their gravitations to sin that we achieve our very purposes.

And so, Jewish tradition teaches, even though we are to consign our bodies to the earth after death, there is a small “bone” (Hebrew: “etzem”) that is not destroyed when a body decays and from which a person, if he or she so merits, will be rejuvenated at some point in the future.

The idea that a person might be recreated from something tiny—something, even, that can survive for millennia—should not shock anyone familiar with contemporary science. Each of our cells contains a large and complex molecule, DNA, that is essentially a blueprint of our bodies; theoretically, one of those molecules from even our long-buried remains holds the code needed to reproduce our physical selves. (Intriguingly, the Hebrew word “etzem” can mean not only “bone” but “essence.”)

To be sure, the Creator is capable of bringing even ashes to life again (as the ashes of the Nazis’ crematoria victims will demonstrate one day, may it come soon). But in Judaism, consciously reducing something to ashes is a declaration of utter abandon and nullification. Jews burn leaven and bread before Pesach, when the Torah insists no vestige of such material may be in their possession. The proper means of disposing of an idol is to pulverize or burn it.

And so, to actually choose to have one’s body incinerated is an act that, whether so intended or not, expresses denial of the fact that the body is a holy vessel, that it deserves respect, that it retains worth—indeed that it contains the seeds of future life.

All of us who understand those things need, today more than ever, to share them with those who, tragically, may not.

August 13, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 39

(25) Sharon, September 4, 2015 3:58 AM


To hear they have a crematorium in Israel. I thought I had heard just about everything. Then they wonder why there's destruction, Measure for Measure. The Rabbis have to stand up and the religious Jews and get rid of this abomination.

(24) Kerry, July 9, 2013 1:02 PM


i just need to say that i have an overwhelming fear of being buried or enclosed in any way. For me cremation is a freeing thought. My children are comforted by the thought that i will not be buried in the ground and left there alone. I do not have a lot of money and so cannot afford a crypt where i would not be under the ground so who is it hurting? i am sure that Hashem sees my heart and knows that my choice is NOT a disrespectful one. MY dad is buried 1400 miles from me , i never get to visit his grave and light a candle or leave flowers. I wish he had been cremated ,so at least he wasn't alone across the country. Sometimes traditions outlast their purpose. I believe that G-d is all powerful and it wont matter on the day of resurrection where or how my remains are - he knows every hair on my head and he loves me.

(23) LVSteveo1, December 5, 2012 8:56 PM

Jewish Burial

Prior to becoming involved in an Modern Orthodox shul, I was leaning towards cremation >120. According to Jewish belief, since we r created by HaShem, (out of dust), thus our physical 'vessels' as it were, should return naturally to G-d's good earth. Also, in many ancient societies (& in India today) cremation was/is the norm. Another issue: resurrection, which until only relatively recently, I learned IS a Jewish concept & is referred to in to in the Chumash, Talmud & rabbinic & other 'writings'. For me, there is no $ issue relating to grave site - I'm registered 4 burial @ Veterans Cemetery in Boulder City NV. Since I know that an Orthodox rabbai won't conduct services 4 me there, it w/b done @ my shul or funeral chapel. . .

(22) jay, March 16, 2012 4:46 AM

Thank you

Despite my mothers wish to be cremated I have decided to have her buried. Is it correct to dishonor her intent.

(21) Beverly Kurtin, February 20, 2012 5:39 AM

Excuse me

It is easy to say that only uneducated Jews chose to be cremated. Yes, we are created in G-d's image, but that refers to our souls, not our bodies. Do you think that Hashem is limited as we are in our bodies? A buried body turns into something that nobody would want to see; I've had to see exhumed bodies, and believe me, there is nothing holy about the horrible condition of a body that has been buried. I'm 71. That is old enough to make an intelligent and spiritual decision for the disposal of my body and the thought of having my body turn into what bodies become when buried turns my stomach. I cannot stand being put through an MRI machine let alone the thought of being encased in a box and then slowly falling to pieces because in my part of the world, one's casket must be put into a concrete vault which slows down the decomposition. I could take being buried in a shroud without a box and I'm still looking into that possibility, but I intend to have my ashes buried; my local rabbi has said that buried remains of cremation can have a Jewish burial. Another reason is money. I do not have a lot of it. My cremation and burial have been pre-paid. I hope that I will not need those services for at least another 29 years; I want to live to be 100 because I have so many doctors to bury. I was recently informed that I had a fatal disease and had only another 7 to 8 months to live...maybe a year. Imagine if YOU had been told that, how would you feel? I have a 100% faith in Hashem and left the matter in his hands. When I went to see the doctor for a follow up, he gave me the great news that they had misdiagnosed me and that I would probably outlive him. THREE DOCTORS SCREWED UP! Or Hashem has once again intervened on my behalf. In any event, I resent being told that those of us who chose to be cremated do so because we're uneducated in Judaism.

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