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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 (113)
January 27, 2016
Re: Claustrophobic
Claustrophobia is a bodily condition; as a result of the soul being enclothed in a body, with bodily limitations, it undergoes certain experiences and limitations. The soul itself is limitless, and does not suffer from any of these conditions.
Shaul Wolf
Chabad.org
January 26, 2016
I am claustrophobic. I will prefer cremation.
Blogrboy
January 18, 2016
Richard
How can a person be "too locked" into the religious issue? G-d created us, and sent our soul down here. Afterwards it goes back up to Him to give an accounting. There is no other issue besides the religious one. Telling Him, "I just didn't believe it" will not change the facts or help at all. Therefore, I advise you to reconsider what you are doing before it is too late. There is nothing to be lost by following Jewish law, and everything to be lost by going against it.
Shoshana
Jerusalem
January 13, 2016
Richard
Have you asked your relatives if they want the ashes you intend to send them? They may prefer a photograph taken while you are alive.
Sarah Masha
West Bloomfield MI USA
January 13, 2016
Re
1) Jewish burial is specifically in the ground. For more on burial at sea, please see this article.

2) A soul is responsible for those things that the person did with its own freedom of choice. Certainly, if a horrific tragedy happened out out of its control it would not be held responsible for that...
Yisroel Cotlar
Cary
September 18, 2015
bodies of catastrophic or violent events
Just curious, what the religious view is of souls/bodies when the body is burned like in a plane crash or car crash, or if the body was dismembered in some of these wierd gruesome murders we hear about.

Of course the body and soul feel the pain and death at the moment.

but question is, will the soul linger at the place of death longer than normal? Will the soul be concious enough to realise that it's body just CANT be buried?

will the soul face some punishment for not having a body left to be buried?

I mean, it's not like the soul was carelessly just leaving its body lying around - but that some action or some other person caused the destruction of the physical body?

and, what about burial at sea? that is also burial, but under the water instead of under the earth.
Mi Kil
Canada
December 29, 2014
Your too locked into the religion issue. My wife and I are doing cremation.that is our choice.. after our cremation we will send every family member part of our ashes.so family that can't make it to the funeral can still have part of you forever no matter where you live
richard
June 23, 2014
No need to pass judgement, just think for yourself
There will always be disputes by "doctors with PhD's" who side with one opinion, while others side with an opposite opinion. Personally, I find what the TRUTH is about any subect to the best of my ability, rather than rely only upon other individuals' writings or opinions, and that's the path that works for me. Of course there are many Jews who rely utterly on various writings of other Jews, including the RaMBaM, and that's their choice. If Maimonides didn't like "smelly foods", it's fine by me if he didn't like beer, aged cheeses, brined foods etc. But, I like them, eat them, and suffer no health problems because of it.
Eleazar Shlomo ben Yakov Goldman
Guanajuato, MEXICO
June 23, 2014
Chinese medicine and acupuncture
As far as I know there has never been any controlled double-blind scientific studies which have shown Chinese medicine or acupuncture to be better than placebo. If I am wrong, then please point me to reports in reputable journals of those studies. Until then, I personally will not be impressed by anything said by "a graduate-level professor of Chinese medicine and acupuncture".
Natalie Kehr
June 23, 2014
To Eliezer Shlomo
I find it interesting that you choose to bring Maimonides on nutrition as an example of "mistakes" made. Just a few weeks ago Chabad posted a video by a nutritionist called Healing Secrets of the Sages. In it, Dr. Simcha Gottlieb quotes Maimonides' nutritional advice as current. He is a doctor and a graduate-level professor of Chinese medicine and acupuncture. It may be worth googling it and checking it out before passing judgement.
Gershon
KS