A Perspective on Cremation

Did you ever notice that when the news channels want to show the ultimate desecration that protesters have for an opposing country, they display pictures of flag burnings or forms of our leaders burned in effigy? Tragically, in the year 1244, when Gentiles wanted to disgrace our religion, they took 24 wagon loads of Torah scrolls, Medrash and the Talmud and burned them in the center of Paris. Around that period, Maimonides' books were also defamed through burning. We burn that which we wish to discard, humiliate or degrade. Before pollution concerns, we routinely burned our garbage as a quick elimination of a problem.  But we never burn or discard something holy or precious.

The experts have predicted that in the very near future a full 50% of United States dispositions of human remains will be cremated.  After death, families will choose to turn their loved ones into ashes, gases and vapor.  Unfortunately this practice has influenced Jewish families as well and more and more are considering this end.  I think it behooves us to look at our Jewish teachings and traditions before such a decision is made and since our reaction to death is really governed by how we lived, lets begin there. 

Our belief is that all of Creation was made to assist humans on their journey. Why else can we slaughter animals and enjoy their succulent meat? Why can we skin leopards for their beautiful fur? Why are we 'better' or more important than beautiful trees that we use for gorgeous wooden bookcases?

Practically everything we do and own, shouts the message of a higher purpose. But this comes with a price – you – humans – better be greater – wiser, and even holier than the rest of creation and you better have an elevated calling, because if not,  then we should be vegetarians and maybe we should think of building nursing homes for old chickens that should never see the inside of our ovens.

But what is this higher purpose? What does our Creator expect from us?  

As Jews we are told through the Torah, 'to emulate our Creator, to do loving kindness, to respect our elders and to fulfill the commands of G-d'. All these Mitzvos are avenues, Kabbalah tells us, designed by the Chief Designer, for us to become incrementally closer to Him – to become holier and less animalistic. Why were we given such wonderful talents, such awesome abilities, such powerful minds, if all we are expected to do is to eat, drink and be merry?  G-d fused in each of us a Neshoma, a holy soul to be our light, our conscience, and our driving force, to do the good that is expected of us. We are, however, constantly, challenged by the darker side of a human, the evil side that pulls us down, and emphasizes only our physical.  It is precisely that challenge that G-d appreciates and G-d rewards. But, understandably, if He rewards us here then that challenge diminishes. In order to see who really are the "few good men" – the rewards are given in the next world – a world in which we must have faith.

G-d promised a resurrection of the dead - t'chiyas hamaisim. Our Rabbis write that in nature we see a fascinating example of this in a caterpillar, a lowly creature that crawls ever so slowly. However, at the end of its existence – its first existence – it "dies", curls up in a cocoon and if we would dissect it then, it would look rotted. But amazingly, it re-incarnates to a beautiful existence – to a flying butterfly with gorgeous wings. Truly a t'chiyas hamasim. Maybe G-d wanted us to see an example of t'chiyas hamasim to "bring home" this phenomenon, this fundamental Jewish belief, because denying the resurrection is a major Jewish offense.

One of the reasons cited for the Jewish prohibition of cremation is that cremation demonstrates by its active destruction of the body, the disbelief in  t'chiyas hamasim.

Cremation also indicates a lack of sensitivity to our lofty existence – our purposeful life – which contrasts so clearly the difference between us and that which we routinely eliminate. If we are truly the fusion of a G-dly soul to our body, then the body must be respected for housing that soul.  "Man", the pinnacle of creation (indicated by man's existence coming chronologically last during creation) this tzelem E-lokim a form made in the "image of G-d" – surely cannot be shown the same quick end as something we wish to throw away. A Sefer Torah that has aged and is not readable, never ends up in a trash heap or burned but is buried in a place called geniza, which means hiding place, – so too should man. Just as the burning of a national flag is a moral offense because of what it signifies, so too, is the act of cremation.  

No one, certainly not a son or daughter, would dream of mutilating their loved one after death.  Judaism directs us to lovingly wash the deceased and dress them in spotlessly white shrouds after the taharah, the purification ceremony is performed, and we carefully place them in a casket to be lowered into the ground. The body is treated with the utmost respect. It is never left alone and we are not permitted to show any frivolity in its presence. The stark difference between this and a crematorium is so evident.

The Talmud tells us that if the torah wasn't given to us, we would learn much from animals. We would learn modesty from the cat. We would learn morality from the dove. We would learn integrity from the ant. In that light, I wish to mention a Midrash. When Adam sat in front of his dead son Hevel – the first dead human in history, he did not know what to do with the lifeless body. A raven flew near him carrying a dead raven in his beak. The raven proceeded to scrape the ground until a furrow was dug – large enough to place the dead bird in and then the raven covered and literally buried the dead bird. Adam saw this instinctive act of the raven and proceeded to do the same for the body of his son.  

Burials became the norm and until the pagan tradition of burning on the pyre, burial in the ground was the accepted practice. Throughout history, Jews have been described as the people who bury their dead. The Torah commands us to "surely bury" – even the executed criminal. It's a shame that the People of the Book need to become copy cats of the latest culture; a culture that now has such a large percentage of people agreeing to cremation.   Maybe subconsciously people want to be cremated – because if we respect our bodies due to the holiness it carries, then we are expected to live that way – a sublime responsibility – one that many don't necessarily want to commit to.

When Adolph Eichmann, one of the most despicable humans ever, was tried in Israel in 1962, the leadership of the country forbade burial for him – no shrine for this degenerate. They ordered cremation and dispersion of his ashes onto the Mediterranean. Now, isn't this exactly the opposite of what we want for our loved ones?

When Adam was created, G-d, says the Talmud gathered earth from all corners of the globe to make up Adam (adama in hebrew means earth), in order that wherever he dies, earth again will be able to absorb him – ready for hiding until t'chiyas hamaisim.

Years ago, when I was invited to speak at a conference of Jewish burial practices, I pleaded with the group of Rabbis and laypeople not to offer cremation as an alternative practice. Our generation, I said, the generation after the Holocaust should understand this better than most.  (In fact, according to a South Florida editorial, the further away we Jews get from this period of the Holocaust, the less distasteful cremation becomes.) We are not the refuse that the degenerates of society thought we were and practiced with us. We are G-d's children, G-d's jewels. We should be hidden after life in "mother" earth, and not disposed of.

It is for these reasons that Jewish law says "no shiva is observed – no Kaddish said, no mourning or burial practices to those who are willfully cremated. They are considered by tradition to have abandoned Jewishness and have surrendered their rights to a posthumous honor.

For so many monumental questions people of the world look to the Jews for answers. When the Chief of Staff of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York was asked "when is the moment of death" regarding the complex issue of brain death – he answered simply – "when the little old Rabbi on the lower east side tells me – then I'll know."  He was, of course, referring to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the premier decider of halachic issues for a half a century.  (Rav Moshe was about 5 feet tall). Before the President of the USA weighed in on capital punishment, he needed Rabbi Feinstein's opinion. I wonder why, then, the people who are described as "the light to all nations" need to look to darkness for their direction in life?

Some people have stated that the reason they want to be cremated is so they should not be a burden on their families, not to use up ground space (for environmental reasons) and obligate funds for grave care and monuments. I wish they would consider that maybe their families appreciate that burden. Sure funerals, caskets, burials and the erecting of monuments are financially difficult and psychologically taxing, but this is the price we pay for love.  For family and friends to forever be able to visit, pray and even cry at a loved ones grave site is an honor, not a burden. To read a tombstone and feel uplifted by the sweet memories of a life that has been loved and shared contributes to the totality of the human experience. This inspiration allows us to transcend the difficulties of the moment and the pressures of the pocketbook.  Let us also remember the affirmation to us and to all of mankind, that life is not over with the tragedy we call death, but rather the everlasting soul – the G-dly part of us, truly lives on eternally. This unfortunately is so lost by the sad, immediate destruction of cremation.

So let us, the people that G-d himself describes as his special nation, embrace the instructions of our Creator with gratitude that our way in life and indeed in death has eternal ramifications. Ashrainu ma tov chalkainu.  (Fortunate is our lot).

Rabbi Boruch E. Levin Executive Director