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Cremation or Burial?

Cremation or Burial?

Why you should bury your loved one the Jewish way

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In normal circumstances, children must respect their parents’ wishes. Parents say go to school, kids must go to school. Parents say go to sleep, kids must go to sleep. Parents say eat your vegetables, kids must eat their vegetables.

While parents must be very careful when and how to enforce their authority (better few commands which are obeyed than more commands which are ignored), and while many otherwise wonderful children tend to ignore this rule more often than they should (Hi, kids!), we understand why our tradition places such importance on respecting parents. It is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments, and represents our relationship with G‑d. Someone who respects their parents’ authority will more easily do so with G‑d. Someone who rejects their parents’ authority will usually have trouble accepting that ultimately, it is G‑d who runs the world.

There are exceptions, however, and one of them includes going against a parent’s final wishes. If a parent instructs children that he or she wants to be cremated, Jewish law—which places huge emphasis on respecting parents’ wishes—obligates children to ignore the command and provide a traditional Jewish burial for their parents.

Who Are Funerals For, Anyway?

Things change when the body dies. The soul is released. It is immediately closer to G‑d, the true source of knowledge. It is a strange question, I know, but one that will determine many of the choices made at the time of death—and our entire understanding of this crucial spiritual transition point. If one believes that funerals are for the living, than do whatever the living want to do. Bury, cremate, leave the body for the vultures, mummify it, put it on a flaming boat down the river, throw it in the garbage, put in under your floorboards, cannibalize it, or do one of the many things that societies throughout the ages have done or do to the bodies of their loved ones. The soul doesn’t care, and probably doesn’t know anyway. It is in a “better place,” and what happens to “its” body is really of no consequence.

But what if funerals are (primarily) for the dead? Consider this:

Each of us has a “part of G‑d,” so to speak, inside of us. It is the neshamah, the soul. It is pure, untainted, and closely connected to its source, the source of all knowledge—G‑d Himself. Deep down, when we get in touch with our soul, we access this source of knowledge. We sense what is true, what is right and what is holy. But it is not easy to access that deep source of knowledge. Our souls are kept prisoner in our bodies. The body is not an enemy, of course, as it enables us to help others and fix the world. But it does limit the soul. Base desires, ego, fears and confusion make it extremely difficult for “me” to know what is really going on, what is really important and what path I should follow.

Things change when the body dies. The soul is released. It is immediately closer to G‑d, the true source of knowledge. The “me” suddenly has much clearer access to Him. Still, the soul does not leave its body immediately. Could a loving wife immediately leave her husband after decades of loving togetherness? The soul stays close by, “ascending on high” slowly, stage by stage.

Immediately after death, in the very first stage of its ascent, the soul’s main concern is that “its” body—its partner over many decades—receive a proper Jewish burial. The soul cries out in pain if its body is treated disrespectfully, and screams in unimaginable horror if its beloved body, a holy vessel, is put to the flame. When the body is alive, the body feels pain. When the body can no longer feel pain—i.e., when it dies—the soul feels its partner’s “physical” pain at a highly spiritual level.

This is why children must disregard parents’ request for cremation. Now, right now, the parents know far more than they knew when alive. Now, right now, the parents’ souls are literally begging their children for a traditional Jewish burial. The child is listening to the parents’ wishes—their unstated, unrealized, true wishes.

Cremation Misconceptions

For some situations in life, it is certainly appropriate to go cheap. Why not save money, especially in hard economic times? But not for all areas of life. The question of what to do with the body of a loved one—or, when the time comes, one’s own—is not theoretical. Cremation is getting more and more popular today in the Western world, and over one-third of all Jewish dead in North America in 2011 were cremated.

Why the trend? Here are a few examples of the “conventional wisdom” . . . and some facts.1

  1. Cremation is better for the environment. Actually, it isn’t. Cremation uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuels, and releases toxins—including mercury—into the air. This misconception probably is caused by environmental opposition to embalming and metal caskets. Because of cremation’s negative environmental impact and modern burial’s problematic practices, environmentalists favor “green burial,” with no embalming or metal caskets. Sound familiar? Jewish tradition forbids cremation, metal caskets and embalming—and our burial tradition is known to be eco-friendly.
  2. There isn’t enough land for cemeteries. Actually, there is. Living in urban centers and paying high rents, it is understandable why we feel that there isn’t any land available. But the numbers show just the opposite. Even if every American death was followed by burial, it would take over 10,000 years just to use up one percent of America’s landmass! And, presumably, few if any cemeteries would survive that long anyway. Burials take up very little land, and there is plenty available—usually within an hour or two of urban centers.
  3. No one will visit the grave anyway, so why have one? Actually, although visiting a grave is both important and beautiful, it has absolutely nothing to do with the obligation to bury. At the end of the Torah, G‑d Himself buries Moses and hides the location forever (in order to avoid it becoming a place of idol worship). Although no one will ever visit his place of eternal rest, G‑d chose burial over the multitude of options available.
  4. Decomposition is disgusting. [Skip this point if you are squeamish]. Actually, while decomposition is hardly a sight to behold, cremation hardly seems any better. Despite the advertisements, the process is neither quick nor clean. An average body burns in the oven for 1.5–2 hours, with bigger bodies lasting even longer. During the process, the body moves back and forth, crackles and sizzles. The brain bubbles. Think of the stench of burning hair and flesh. Once the oven (a.k.a. retort, chamber or incinerator) has finished its gruesome task, the remains are not yet “ashes.” What is left in the oven are actually dry bone fragments. They are manually swept out and placed into a machine where they are ground up (a.k.a. pulverized, cremulated or processed) for about 20 minutes, in order to fit the remains into a small urn. The point is not whether burial or cremation is more disgusting. The point is that cremation is not pleasant—it is a loud, violent, repulsive and artificial process. On the other hand, decomposition, while not pretty, is a biological process, and the natural way of every living being.
  5. Cremation is cheaper. Actually, this piece of conventional wisdom is sometimes true. When all the hidden costs are added in, Sheri Richardson Stahl, director of Island Funeral Home in Beaufort, S.C., explained that “plenty of times, cremations are just as expensive as burials.” Unless “Direct Cremation” is chosen. In these cases, a cremation company is contacted online or by telephone. They pick up the body and deliver to the family a small can of cremated remains. Costs are often between $1,000 and $2,000. Including the plot, no burial will be that cheap, and direct cremations are becoming more common.

    That is unfortunate. Here is why.

    For some situations in life, it is certainly appropriate to go cheap. Why not save money, especially in hard economic times? But not for all areas of life. For example, I will do whatever is necessary to send my children to a decent school, rather than “going cheap” and putting them in a bad environment. Similarly, burial is worth the extra cash.

As we have seen, burial is better for the environment. But the reasons are much deeper.

The soul needs burial, as described above. Cremation causes it tremendous pain, more than we can imagine.

Also, the body deserves burial. Note that Eastern religions usually require cremation. This is not surprising: they view the body as an enemy to be fought, and spirituality consists in separation from the physical. Their leaders are celibate and ascetic (think of the image of the guru on the mountaintop, completely detached from worldly life). According to the Torah, however, the body is not the enemy: I couldn’t give charity without my hands, speak words of prayer without my mouth, or run to do a good deed without my legs. While the soul must remain in control, the body is a partner, and deserves to be lovingly placed in the ground, not burnt like the garbage.

Finally, the Jew wants burial. No matter how Jewishly aware or active a person was during their lifetime, choosing a traditional Jewish burial declares, “I may not have been a perfect Jew, but I’m a proud one. And I want to be buried as Jews have been for thousands of years. I owe it my ancestors. I owe it to my descendants. I owe it to my body—and I owe it to my soul.”

See Why Does Jewish Law Forbid Cremation? from our selection on Judaism and Cremation.

Explore more on this subject in Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View by Doron Kornbluth (Mosaica Press, 2012).



Watch: Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View.



FOOTNOTES
1.

Sources and further information can be found in my Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View (Mosaica Press, 2012).

Doron Kornbluth is a bestselling author of Why Be Jewish?, Raising Kids to LOVE Being Jewish, and the newly released Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View (all by Mosaica Press). A renowned international lecturer, Doron speaks in over 50 cities a year to all types of audiences, on many subjects. Doron is also an inspirational licensed Israeli Tour Guide who offers fascinating and inspirational tours to individuals, families and groups. For more information, visit his website or click here to purchase his latest book.
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Discussion (90)
October 4, 2013
Christian thoughts
Although I am not a Jew, I completely agree with everything in this statement. It has been an argument between me and my husband for the past couple of years. He is Catholic and his church has recently allowed cremation for financial reasons. I am Orthodox and we do not allow cremation for any reason. The part about the souls connection to the body is why I feel the human remains should always be buried, and perhaps now, I can use this as my argument, being a very strong argument, indeed.
Anonymous
Bethlehem
May 29, 2013
My opinion on cremation. Is it irrational?
I get what they mean by the soul being harmed when burned. I did not know that, I always felt that when your cremated your body will flow out of this world with your soul, and that burying your body wasn't all good. That even though your soul leaves this world, your body is at the mercy of whoever wants to disgrace it back on earth. Such as bad people or the devil himself. But I probably don't know what I'm talking about. Is what I say nonsense.
Anonymous
May 12, 2013
Chemistry (response to John's comment)
Although plants do use CO2 from the air, there is already more than twice as much CO2 in the air as plants need. More CO2 won't help them grow, and may hurt them (due to global warming).

However, plants do need nitrogen, and plants cannot get nitrogen from the air. Plants get nitrogen from nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil.
Anonymous
Camarillo, CA, USA
May 9, 2013
Cremation returns the body to nature
Contrary to what some comments suggest, cremation returns the body to nature just as efficiently, if not more so, as burial. Plants fix CO2 from the air, not the soil. It's a personal choice - would you rather the carbon in your body to go building plants or maggots?
John
USA
September 4, 2012
answer to Natalie
It is impressive that even though you don't believe what you read on this site, you come back to it and have an open mind to the possibility of being wrong. Your wanting to learn and grow is very special.

On this Chabad site there is an excellent video that I highly recommend, called "A Pastor's Journey to Judaism". It will surely answer your first two questions as to why the church doesn't teach Judaism to priests and also as to why rabbis don't study Christianity.
Your third one, as to why to worship Him, is also answered,but I'll add a few points.

He took us out of Egypt with great miracles and love such as the world has never seen, brought us to Mt. Sinai and with a great revelation and love gave us His holy Torah, to teach us right from wrong. protected us in the dessert for 40 years and gave us the Land of Israel and the Holy Temple where non-Jews also worshipped.
Shoshana
Jerusalem, Israel
September 2, 2012
give the matter careful thought-it's for eternity
Judaism is 4,000 years old, dating from the time of Avraham Avinu. The Torah was given on Mt.Sinai 3,300 years ago. It seems to me that before one turns his back on the Torah, it's commandments and wisdom, he should first delve deeply into this wisdom and see what it's really all about. Before we opt out for "strange" ways, such as cremation, we should be careful that we are not being influenced by the "style" of the day, or by cost, or by the outward appearance of the crematoria or its workers. The decision is irreversible and for all eternity and the matter has to be carefully weighed.

Money comes and goes. Fads and trends also change. G-d and His Torah are forever. What could be my gain by going against His will, what could be my loss if I am wrong? Is it worth the chance?
Shoshana
Jeusalem, Israel
August 24, 2012
Why I am on this site.
Gavriel Gershon asks why I am on this site if I don't believe in the soul.
1. It is very boring to read the views of people with whom I agree.
2. There is always the slight possibility that my views may be wrong, and, unless I read and listen to "the opposition", I will never discover any error of my ways.

Christians and Jews both regard the Tanach as a holy text. I am continually amazed that trainee priests are not required to study why the Jews don't agree with the Christian interpretation of that text. I am similarly surprised the Rabbis don't appear to have studied why the Christians, for some odd reasons, think that their interpretation of the Tanach is correct.

I am a Jewish anti-theist who, at the moment, thinks that the Bible describes a God who is not worthy of being worshipped. But I live in a world with worshippers, so I feel I should try to find out what you all think, and why you think it.

It hope I make some of you think even if you still disagree with me
Natalie Kehr
London, UK
August 24, 2012
Gershon
Your comment is right on target. In my book you are a scholar & a mentch.
Jack
Boca , FL
August 23, 2012
Pollution
Cremation causes severe pollution of the air by the release of toxic gases (or the environmental dillemma of sequestration and BURIAL of the filters in landfills). It also contributes to the carbon footprint, both in the CO2 released by the body and the CO2 released by the fuels. The real advantage is that it puts the body "out of sight, out of mind" for those who choose it.
Of course, all that still offends when the observant person considers the affront to the body and the soul and to HaShem when cremation is chosen. (If you don't believe in a soul as one writer stated above, why are you on this site?)
When my mom passed last year, it was comforting to know that she was correctly attended to, and that I can visit and reflect and say Tehillim over her whenever I am in town.
Gavriel Eliezer ben Ze'ev Gershon
Largo, FL
August 22, 2012
Is there a chemist in the house?
I always felt that cremation was environmentally OK, with the fuel used being compensated for by the ground not being made permanently unavailable. But then a scientist friend told me that cremation turns phosphorus into a particularly stable compound so it is no longer available to future life. My friend was not a chemist, and nor am I, so I have no idea whether or not he was talking nonsense.
Natalie Kehr
London, UK
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