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.