Judaism on Cremation

An evaluation of the arguments for and against.

By

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

While cremation was known in the ancient world, the universal Jewish practice until the late 19th century when cremation became popular was to bury the dead in the ground or in mausoleums. In modern times, Reform Judaism has little objection to cremation, although it normally favors burial. Orthodox and, to a very large extent, Conservative Judaism frown severely on cremation. Orthodox Rabbis have been especially virulent in their opposition to the practice.

The following are the objections to cremation, some more convincing than others:

An Urn

An Urn for storing ashes

after cremation

1. Cremation was a pagan practice in ancient times and is consequently associated with the idolatrous beliefs against which Judaism set its face. Even an otherwise innocent practice can become tainted by association.

2. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b), after a lengthy discussion, comes to the conclusion that it is a religious obligation to bury the dead and when cremation takes place this obligation has not been fulfilled.

3. The Talmud (Hullin 11b) states that it is forbidden to mutilate a corpse. When a dead body is buried, decomposition takes place as a natural process, whereas in cremation the human remains are intentionally destroyed. A comparison is made with a Scroll of the Torah, a Sefer Torah. Even when this is no longer usable, because the letters have faded, it is reverentially buried in the soil rather than destroyed directly.

The analogy is far from exact since the Scroll is a sacred object. Nevertheless, the point of the analogy is that there should be reverential disposal of what was once a human being, created in God’s image, who carried out the precepts of the Torah while he was alive.

4. A Talmudic legend (Gittin 56b) has it that the emperor Titus ordered that his corpse be cremated and his ashes scattered in order to escape God’s judgment. It is therefore argued that anyone who wishes his body to be cremated thereby demonstrates a lack of belief in the resurrection of the dead and in God’s judgment. This is the weakest of the arguments against cremation.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

cremation_th.jpg

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

While cremation was known in the ancient world, the universal Jewish practice until the late 19th century when cremation became popular was to bury the dead in the ground or in mausoleums. In modern times, Reform Judaism has little objection to cremation, although it normally favors burial. Orthodox and, to a very large extent, Conservative Judaism frown severely on cremation. Orthodox Rabbis have been especially virulent in their opposition to the practice.

The following are the objections to cremation, some more convincing than others:

An Urn

An Urn for storing ashes

after cremation

1. Cremation was a pagan practice in ancient times and is consequently associated with the idolatrous beliefs against which Judaism set its face. Even an otherwise innocent practice can become tainted by association.

2. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b), after a lengthy discussion, comes to the conclusion that it is a religious obligation to bury the dead and when cremation takes place this obligation has not been fulfilled.

3. The Talmud (Hullin 11b) states that it is forbidden to mutilate a corpse. When a dead body is buried, decomposition takes place as a natural process, whereas in cremation the human remains are intentionally destroyed. A comparison is made with a Scroll of the Torah, a Sefer Torah. Even when this is no longer usable, because the letters have faded, it is reverentially buried in the soil rather than destroyed directly.

The analogy is far from exact since the Scroll is a sacred object. Nevertheless, the point of the analogy is that there should be reverential disposal of what was once a human being, created in God’s image, who carried out the precepts of the Torah while he was alive.

4. A Talmudic legend (Gittin 56b) has it that the emperor Titus ordered that his corpse be cremated and his ashes scattered in order to escape God’s judgment. It is therefore argued that anyone who wishes his body to be cremated thereby demonstrates a lack of belief in the resurrection of the dead and in God’s judgment. This is the weakest of the arguments against cremation.

For one thing, many believing Jews do not understand the doctrine of the resurrection in a crude literal sense, and even those who do can hardly believe that it is beyond God’s power to reconstitute a body that has been cremated, just as it is in His power to reconstitute a body that has become decomposed in the grave.

The notion that there is a tiny bone in the human body which does not suffer decay in the grave and from which the resurrected body is reconstituted (making cremation forbidden because this bone is destroyed by fire) belongs more to folklore than to Jewish doctrine. The corpses of Jews who perished in the gas chambers were burnt in crematoria. Surely these Jews are not denied their place in the Hereafter because they were not buried.

5. The strongest argument against cremation is on grounds of tradition, that it is wrong to depart from the custom of burial practiced by Jews for thousands of years.

Arguments for Cremation

The argument of the cremationists that burial takes up too much space which is better used for the living does not have much to commend it. The amount of land involved is very small, and graveyards are usually situated in the countryside. In any event, crematoria usually have spacious gardens attached to them which also take up space.

Another argument is that the quick disposal by cremation, which the bereaved family does not witness, spares their feelings. Even if this were true, a dubious proposition, Judaism does not encourage any refusal to acknowledge either the facts of life or the facts of death. In more recent years, cremation has become far from popular among ecologists concerned that the atmosphere should not be polluted.

Some Orthodox Rabbis, in their opposition to cremation, do not permit burial in the Jewish cemetery of the ashes of one who has been cremated, but others do allow it. It has long been the practice in the Orthodox community of Great Britain to permit this practice provided the ashes are placed in a normal coffin.

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