Jewish law is unequivocal in establishing absolutely, and uncompromisingly, that the dead must be buried in the earth. Man's body returns to the earth as it was. The soul rises to God, but the physical shelter, the chemical elements that clothed the soul, sink into the vast reservoir of nature. God's words to Adam are, "For dust thou are and unto dust shalt thou return." Later, the Bible crystallizes God's words into positive law, ki kavor tikberenu, "Thou shalt surely bury him" (Deuteronomy 21:23).

In our society there exist contradictory tendencies that reflect man's confusion in treating the dead. Shall he hasten the dispatch of the deceased, or preserve the body and delay the inevitable decay? Some choose to embalm the deceased, deposit them in metal cases, encase the caskets in concrete Vaults, or store them in mausoleums. They strive to preserve the remains, although they know quite well that eventually the forces of decomposition will triumph. Others wish to avoid even the normal, steady decay of nature, and choose to cremate the remains and reduce the deceased to ash without pomp or ceremony. The ash is either stored in an urn and shelved, or left in the basement of the chapel, or strewn over the ocean by plane, or buried in a small box.

The Torah absolutely and unqualifiedly insists on the natural decomposition of the remains. The wood of the casket, the cloth of the shrouds, the unembalmed body decompose in nature's own steady way. No artificiality, no slowing or hurrying of this process is permitted. The world goes on in its own pace. Those who die must follow the law of nature and the world.


Cremation is never permitted. The deceased must be interred, bodily, in the earth. It is forbidden-in every and any circumstance-to reduce the dead to ash in a crematorium. It is an offensive act, for it does violence to the spirit and letter of Jewish law, which never, in the long past, sanctioned the ancient pagan practice of burning on the pyre. The Jewish abhorrence of cremation has already been noted by Tacitus, the ancient historian, who remarked (upon what appeared to be a distinguishing characteristic) that Jews buried, rather than burned their dead.

  • Even if the deceased willed cremation, his wishes must be ignored in order to observe the will of our Father in Heaven. Biblical law takes precedence over the instructions of the deceased.

  • Cremated ashes may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. There is no burial of ashes, and no communal responsibility to care, in any way, for the burned remains. The only exception is when the government decrees that the ashes be buried in the ground, and there is no other burial plot available to the family. For such unusual cases a portion of the Jewish cemetery must be marked off and set aside.

  • Jewish law requires no mourning or Shiva for the cremated. Those who are cremated are considered by tradition to have abandoned, unalterably, all of Jewish law and, therefore, to have surrendered their rights to posthumous honor.1

Mausoleums and Concrete Vaults

The specific biblical mandate of interment refers to burial in the earth. This means that:

  1. A mausoleum is permissible only if the deceased is buried in the earth itself, and the mausoleum is built around the plot of earth. This was frequently done for scholars, communal leaders, those who have contributed heavily to charity, and people of renown.

  2. However, to have the deceased buried above the ground, not surrounded by earth within the mausoleum, is unquestionably prohibited. The Bible repeats its injunction: kavor tikberenu, "bury thou shalt surely bury," to emphasize that it is not a legal burial if the casket is left above the earth.

  3. If the deceased willed burial in a mausoleum, one should not follow the will in such a case, even though in most instances his will is iron-clad and obligatory upon the mourners.

  4. In certain parts of the country the earth is unstable and shifting, and government authorities require caskets to be enclosed in concrete vaults. In such cases, vaults are acceptable. In other instances, where the motive is solely to preserve the remains, it is preferable not to use the vault. Clearly, the concrete vault is not in the spirit of the tradition, and should be avoided where possible. However, theoretically it is permitted.

Burial of Limbs

The blood and limbs of an individual are considered by Jewish law to be part of the human being. As such, they require burial. If the deceased was found with severed limbs, or with blood-stained clothes, both the limbs and the clothes must be buried with him.

If limbs were amputated during one's lifetime, they require burial in the person's future gravesite. If he does not own a plot as yet, or if he is squeamish in this regard, it should be buried in a separate plot, preferably near the graves of members of his family. The limbs are cleansed and placed in the earth. No observance of mourning is necessary.

Donation of Limbs to Hospitals

Jewish law generally discourages contribution of one's limbs to hospitals. If one has absolutely stipulated that a limb be donated for medical research, the question of following his will depends on many details, and requires rabbinic research. It is best, therefore, to consult an expert on Jewish law. At any rate, even if it were permitted, the limb would require burial when it is no longer in use by the medical institution.

The donations of eyes to an eye bank is a subject of rabbinic discussion. Important authorities have considered it entirely permissible. Other transplantations, such as heart and kidney, etc., are too complex an issue of medical ethics and halacha for discussion in these pages.