Not long ago I was cruising in a golf cart across the grounds of a newly developed Jewish cemetery where my congregation was contemplating purchasing a section. The cemetery administrator pointed out an area where cremation remains are interred in a specially designed receptacle. The ashes or “cremains” are placed into a tube, which is inserted into a crevice carved out in the middle of a small boulder. I was astonished to see a whole swath of this new Jewish cemetery that was dotted with these “memorial rocks,” complete with engraved plaques and markers.
Notwithstanding the gut-wrenching fact that the Nazis’ preferred method for disposing of Jewish bodies was reducing them to billowing ash in crematoria, Jews – like the general population – are electing to be cremated in higher numbers than ever before.
Jewish law prohibits cremation. One of the first recorded acts of the very first Jew was the burial of his beloved wife. Genesis Chapter 23 describes the painstaking efforts that Abraham undertook to provide Sarah with an honorable burial. Moreover, the human body is considered holy, both in death as in life. Anyone who has taken part in a tahara – the sacred preparation of a Jewish body for burial – can attest to the gentleness, dignity and great care with which the body is treated as it is cleansed, dressed in shrouds and placed into a simple wooden coffin.
Rather than detailing the long history of Jewish burial, or the various halachic reasons why cremation is prohibited, I want to instead share why I am so personally opposed to cremation. This sensibility comes from over a decade of rabbinic work, helping people to bring their loved ones to a place of final rest and begin to cope with the pain of loss. In so many circumstances, when a relative has requested to be cremated the survivors are deeply conflicted about carrying out their wishes. Family members often express to me how they wish their loved one would have chosen burial instead; how they wish they didn’t have to carry out that person’s final request. Cremation exacerbates the pain of loss by thrusting upon survivors the responsibility of fulfilling something with which they feel viscerally uncomfortable. Compounding the grief and confusion of surviving loved ones seems to be utterly contrary to the spirit of Jewish mourning customs, and presumably never something one would want to inflict on relatives.
Furthermore, burial in the ground is an important component in the grieving process. We Jews do not relegate burial to anonymous cemetery personnel. We bury our own close loved ones and dear friends. Each Jew, upon attending a funeral, has a mitzvah to take up the shovel and place earth on that burial site. To accompany a loved one to the grave site, to bear their coffin, to lower it to its final resting place, to place earth on the grave, to recite memorial prayers in the presence of family, friends, and community – all of this is critical to coming to terms with the finality of death, and the beginning of the mourning process. A cremation is a detached procedure, accomplished without any of the kavod, honor, to the body, or the participation of the family or community. It also deprives mourners of all these powerful, therapeutic rituals.
On many occasions I have witnessed people meandering through the rows of the cemetery…often stopping to gaze at a headstone, to pause in quiet reflection, or to connect with the memory of someone they once knew who now rests there. I watch and witness the power of cemeteries to conjure memories, to trigger thoughts of the deceased, and to generate a sense of peace. A touching Midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 34b) imagines that Caleb peeled off from the rest of the spies and made a detour to Hevron before returning from his expedition in the land of Israel. According to the Sages, Caleb went to pray and find solace at the burial place of our holy ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. Caleb found the strength to stand up to the negative reports of the 10 spies because of that pilgrimage to the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
Many people today speak imaginatively of their ashes being scattered across the sea, or on their favorite golf course, or in several different desired places. While it may appeal to some, the effect is to deprive survivors of a physical place to return, to remember, to heal, and to make connections with their ancestors’ legacies.
Jewish law teaches that one must violate the wishes of a relative who requests to be cremated. In reality, however, few children are willing to ignore the dictates of parents or other relatives. Those contemplating cremation should give serious thought to its implications for surviving loved ones. If your family members express misgivings about cremation, how will it exacerbate their grief to feel obligated to carry out such a request? If they would benefit from the comforting rituals of a traditional Jewish burial, how will it hamper their healing to be deprived of them? If they wish to have a place in the world to return to, where they can remember you, what will it mean for them not to? Consider these issues, all in a post-Holocaust era, and perhaps our Jewish insistence on burial might make a bit more sense.