Jewish law mandates that human remains be buried after death, and this has been dominant Jewish practice for millennia.
Extensive sources from the Torah through the later rabbinic authorities attest to this requirement, and there is a powerful taboo against cremation reinforced by the millions of Jews burned in Nazi crematoria during the Holocaust. Nevertheless, as cremation becomes more common in mainstream society, the number of Jews opting for cremation appears to be increasing, forcing Jewish authorities to consider a number of related issues, including whether cremated remains may be interred in a Jewish cemetery and whether a rabbi may officiate at a funeral for someone who has been cremated.
Is cremation permitted by Jewish law?
Defenders of cremation point out that there is no explicit prohibition against cremation in Jewish legal sources. However there are prohibitions on defiling dead bodies and detailed procedures for handling them prior to burial — all of which appear inconsistent with the act of cremation. Proponents of cremation also point to biblical sources suggesting that Jews may have practiced the burning of dead bodies in ancient times.
Against that is a large body of Jewish literature that deals extensively with burial of the dead. In Genesis (3:19), God declares of man: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Deuteronomy (21:23) commands in the case of an executed criminal, “You shall surely bury him.” The requirement of burying the dead is explicitly codified in multiple later rabbinic sources as well, including Sanhedrin 46b, Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot and the Shulchan Aruch.
Moreover, there are additional historical, cultural and spiritual arguments against cremation. According to the Jewish mystical tradition, the soul does not immediately depart the body after death, and the process of decay in the earth allows a gradual separation rather than the more immediate and painful one resulting from the burning of the body. Cremation was historically associated with pagan practices that Jews are repeatedly enjoined in the Torah to reject. And because the body is traditionally considered the property of God, it is forbidden to defile it, which some regard the willful burning of human remains to be.
For all these reasons, Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic authorities maintain that cremation is prohibited. The Reform movement has adopted conflicting positions on this question over the years, but the most recent rabbinic opinion on the subject states that while cremation ought to be discouraged, the practice is not considered sinful.
Can the remains of cremated Jews be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
Generally yes. Even in traditional communities, the fact that someone may not have adhered to Jewish law in their lifetime does not constitute grounds for their exclusion from Jewish burial grounds. Individual burial societies or Jewish cemeteries might decline to inter the ashes of a cremated body, in part as a deterrent to others who might also choose cremation. But there is nothing in Jewish law that bars them from burying ashes. Many Jewish cemeteries are known to bury ashes upon request , and the Reform movement has said explicitly that cremated remains of a Jewish person should be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Can a rabbi officiate at a funeral for someone who was cremated?
It depends on the circumstances. According to a ruling adopted by the Conservative movement’s legal authorities in 1986, in a case where a family declines the advice of a rabbi not to cremate a family member’s remains, the rabbi should not officiate at the interment, but may choose to officiate at a ceremony prior to the cremation. If the family did not consult a rabbi prior to cremation, the rabbi may choose to officiate at the interment. The Reform movement does not object to its rabbis presiding over a funeral at which a cremation is to take place.
Does a deceased’s wish to be cremated have to be honored?
The Shulhan Arukh rules explicitly, citing Maimonides, that heirs must not respect the wishes of a deceased person not to be buried. While some rabbinic authorities differed on this point, contemporary Orthodox and Conservative authorities uphold the view that next of kin are not obliged to defer to the wishes of the deceased in such a case. The Reform movement has said that children are not forbidden from honoring a parent’s request to be cremated, yet neither are they obliged to do so if it contravenes their own religious principles.
Is cremation cheaper than burial?
Yes. According to a study from the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost of a funeral in the United States in 2014 was $7,181, while cremation cost $6,078 — and could easily be far lower if certain services were foregone. However, given the importance traditionally accorded to Jewish burial, many Jewish communities have resources, such as free burial societies, to subsidize a traditional burial in cases where the family lacks sufficient financial resources. In addition, it is traditional Jewish practice to bury someone in a simple pine casket, rather than the more expensive types of caskets that funeral homes often market.
Is embalming permissible in Jewish tradition?
Embalming is the process of preserving human remains, often to enhance presentability for public viewing. As with cremation, embalming is traditionally viewed as inconsistent with Jewish practices surrounding death and burial. Embalming a body is generally seen as a form of mutilation of the dead body, while the whole notion of preservation runs counter to the tradition that the dead be buried quickly and in as natural a state as possible. However exceptions for certain embalming procedures are occasionally made in extenuating circumstances, as when it is required by law or if a body must travel overseas for burial.
Articles on Cremation and the Jewish Community
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