Death and Dying – Summer 1989
To cremate or not to cremate. That is a controversial question in the Jewish world.
Cremation is forbidden by the rabbinic tradition. The burning of the body is viewed with horror. Burial is the only legitimate way of dealing with the corpse.
The tradition prescribes not only burial, but burial on the same day as death, burial in shrouds, burial without embalming, and burial without a coffin.
In the Bible, burning is viewed as a form of humiliation and punishment. “If a man marries a woman and her mother it is depravity; both he and they shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 20:14). “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father she defiles; she shall be put to the fire” (Leviticus 21:9). “He that is indicated for proscription and all that is his shall be put to the fire” (Judges 7:15).
In the Mishnah, cremation is identified as an idolatrous practice (Avoda Zara 1:3). Even the burning of sinners is discontinued, though this form of punishment is still regarded as legal.
Why is cremation forbidden?
The official reason is provided in the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code book prepared by Joseph Caro. The prohibition of cremation is justified by the resurrection of the dead. Rabbinic Judaism maintains that a final Judgment Day will take place and that the dead will rise from their graves to stand before the justice of God. No body means no resurrection. And no resurrection means no access to Paradise.
However, this official reason seems to be a rationalization, an ideological afterthought, rather than the real historic motivation. The prohibition against cremation preceded the emergence of the resurrection idea. And the assertion that no body means no resurrection seems silly when one realizes what happens to the corpse after burial, especially without embalming. Time reduces the body to a dust that is almost indistinguishable from the ashes of burning. Moreover, if the resurrection idea were true, wicked people could avoid the punishments of Gehenna by simply choosing cremation.
Anthropologists tell us that early cultures are divided into burial groups and cremation groups. Both dispositions of the dead seem to be equally ancient, with their roots deep in the behaviors and beliefs of the Stone Age.
Inhumation, or burial, seems to derive from a belief that the souls of the dead continue to reside in their respective bodies and cannot successfully survive without this attachment. The preservation of the body assists in the preservation of the soul. The embalmed Egyptian dead are an exaggerated testimony to this belief, as are the tombs filled with material possessions for the afterlife. Cremation, on the other hand, follows from an opposing conviction that the souls of the dead do not depend on the body for their continued existence. The destruction of the body in no way adversely affects the welfare of the soul. In fact, it may be liberating.
Another motivation for cremation is the belief that corpses are a source of defilement and dangerous to keep, even in a buried condition. Still another belief maintains that fire is sacred and therefore purifying.
Many famous cultures featured cremation. In ancient Greece and Rome, much of the aristocracy chose burning. In India, cremation became the universal ritual of death and has remained deeply identified with Hinduism. Buddhism followed suit and planted this Indian practice in Indochina and Japan.
In the West, the triumph of Christianity and Islam, both anti-cremation religions, made cremation a ritual taboo. Burning bodies was a no-no for orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Only criminals or apostates deserved the indignity of immolation.
But the arrival of the Enlightenment undermined this solid front of opposition. In the age of science, believing in the resurrection of the dead was difficult even for Christians and Jews who tried to be loyal to ancestral tradition. Reason challenged the unconscious fears of many religionists. By the nineteenth century, immortality had become so ethereal that bodies seemed quite irrelevant to the project of eternal life. Romantic spirituality had no need for the physical. Enlightened religion was open to alternatives to burial.
This development was reinforced by new social realities. As long as people lived on farms, burial was easy and cheap. But city life added complications. Death specialists in the form of morticians and funeral chapels now intervened. Affluence and conspicuous consumption made rituals and ceremonies more elaborate. What was once simple and inexpensive now became complex and costly. Burial involved a lot of money and a lot of time.
Overcrowding and mobility added to the problems. In an uncrowded world, giving land to the dead was no imposition. But in densely populated centers, cemeteries competed with the demands of the living for the rational use of scarce land. In the stationary world of farm life, the graves of ancestors could be revered and cared for by generations of descendants. But in the fast-moving milieu of urban displacement, people hardly stay in one place long enough even to remember where their ancestors are buried. Within two generations, graves are abandoned.
The consequence of all these changes was the emergence of an interest in cremation. In the 1870s, cremation societies were established in England and North America. Although religious opposition was strong and vocal, they continued to grow and flourish. An increasingly secular society now found what was once abhorrent rationally attractive. Even many “spiritual” people chose cremation as an expression of their new, free religious commitments. By the middle of the twentieth century, incineration had become a major choice in northern Europe and in the antireligious regimes of the Soviet Union, its satellites, and China. In both Russia and China, the reversal was dramatic and revolutionary. Both nations had been deeply involved with the sacredness of burial. But ideology and necessity combined to produce a quick transformation.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Jews in Western Europe and North America followed the new fashion. Influenced by science and secularism, they found cremation an appropriate choice. In North America, cremation became so popular among liberal Jews that the Reform rabbinate, defying tradition, legitimized its use. Even Modern Orthodox rabbis — Hermann Adler in England and Zadoc Kahn in France — conceded “burial” rights to the ashes of Jews in Jewish cemeteries.
The influx of Polish and Russian immigrants into Western countries dampened the new enthusiasm. Even the radicals among them retained a traditional preference for burial. And this traditionalism was reinforced by the events of the Holocaust. Cremation became associated, in many Jewish minds, with the horrors of Nazi bestiality. Even today, among secularists in Israel, cremation is an inconceivable option for Jews.
But cremation remains an important option for Jews outside of Israel. A significant and growing minority are choosing it for themselves. For humanistic Jews like me who prefer cremation, the choice is generally based on the following considerations:
- Death is final. No significant part of the human personality continues to reside in the remains of the body. The preservation of the body through embalming is a meaningless expense. Without embalming, the body will disintegrate in a short while into substances equivalent to ashes. Cremation is the affirmation of human mortality.
- The monies expended on burial can be used more productively for the living. The best tribute to the dead is the support of programs, causes, and institutions that were important to them while they were alive.
- Where reason and tradition conflict, reason has a right to override. Both laws and customs ought to be responsive to human needs and human welfare.
- The Holocaust is irrelevant to this issue. The extermination campaigns of the Nazis were as much associated with mass burials as with mass cremations. In both cases cruelty and indignity accompanied dying and disposal. Where there is love and respect, cremation, like burial, provides a setting of dignity.
If you choose cremation for yourself, you will need to deal with certain problems.
Your family may be strongly opposed to cremation and may resist carrying out your wishes. It is very important to be very explicit with your spouse, your children, and your siblings. They should know in advance how you feel. You have a right to be the master of your own death. Written statements entrusted to your family and to your lawyer will reinforce your spoken desire. Since your family are the legal owners of your body after your death, their cooperation is indispensable. Refusing to discuss the matter before you die will leave your family open to manipulation by hostile funeral directors, rabbis, and relatives. Even families open to cremation will choose burial unless you say otherwise. The inertia of tradition has power.
Getting your body to the crematorium may not be as easy as you imagine. In most states and provinces, because of the lobbying of funeral directors, a coffin is required for cremation. The best procedure to follow is to contact a sympathetic funeral home or memorial society before you are too ill to act. In some states, cremation societies offer cremation services at moderate costs. If a sudden catastrophe occurs, your family will have to act on your behalf. Make sure that you tell them what to do, while you are still healthy, so that they will not deviate from your desire.
Many people who choose to be cremated also choose to donate their bodies to medical research. After the body has been appropriately studied, it is usually burned. The time to make arrangements for this donation with an appropriate medical school or medical institution is while you are still able to.
Your memorial service (whether public or private, whether formal or informal) generally follows the cremation at a time convenient for your family and friends. The place can be a temple, a funeral chapel, your own home, or a setting — indoors or outdoors — significant in your life. If you have any preference, you ought to indicate it while you are still alive. If you want the service to precede the cremation, then provision has to be made for the presence of the coffin.
In most states, disposing of ashes by scattering (the choice of most people) is illegal for obvious sanitary reasons. Despite these legal prohibitions, many families choose to scatter the ashes of loved ones clandestinely in lakes, rivers, fields, and woods. The legal options are 1) retaining them in an unburied urn, 2) placing them in a mausoleum niche, 3) burying them in a cemetery plot, or 4) burying them in a memorial garden with no distinct plots. Many liberal religious organizations now set aside an area on their congregational grounds for a memorial garden where “cremains” may be legally buried. Quite often a memorial wall accompanies the garden. Names of the dead are inscribed on the wall.
Cremation is a legitimate and appropriate option for humanistic Jews. Since it is nontraditional and arouses hostility among many Jews, a special effort is required by both you and your family — if cremation is your choice — to guarantee your option. Discussing death after death is a humanistic impossibility. You have to make your arrangements beforehand.