Cremation in the Jewish Tradition

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As the popularity of cremation expands throughout the United States, many religious scholars and clerics find themselves stuck in a conundrum. Within the next few years, cremation will likely become the norm in the U.S. Even in the Jewish tradition, where cremation has been considered taboo for centuries, congregations are dealing with more faithful members who seek cremation when they die. With research and new interpretation of religious texts, many rabbis have found a middle ground to allow Jews who have been cremated to have a proper burial in a Jewish cemetery. When the family observes the proper stages of mourning and keep a kosher burial plan, many congregations will honor their loved one’s request to be cremated.

Interpreting the Law

Halachah, the Jewish law, states that people who have died must be buried on land. Simply put, according to the Torah, people are endowed with their bodies by their creator. When they die, they are supposed to return their bodies to the ground, to their creator, as it was given to them. Most modern sources accept this concept as a fairly uniform ban on cremation for faithful Jews who seek religious burial services in a Jewish cemetery.

Jewish Star of DavidBut, not everyone believes that this assumption is entirely correct. In 1986, Rabbi Morris M. Shapiro claimed that there might be other ways to interpret religious texts traditionally cited in arguments against cremation. Shapiro notes that there are no explicit statements against cremation in the Talmud or Bible. He argues that Talmudic texts ostensibly banning cremation might actually simply be calling for a prompt burial. He cites “the RaDaK,” or Rabbi David Kimchi, a well-known Hebrew scholar from the Middle Ages, saying that cremation may be acceptable if it is done under certain conditions. In cases where the body has been damaged or allowed to putrefy before burial, cremation may be the best way to honor the body.

Cremation’s Increasing Popularity

No matter what religion people belong to, cremation is on the rise in the U.S. At the moment, about 43 percent of Americans are cremated when they die. The Cremation Association of North America estimates that this number will jump to over 55 percent by 2025. Cost is a large factor in this increase. Cremations are usually less than $2,000, while the average burial exceeds $7,000.

(Check out Maintaining a Budget for Cremation for more information on the price of cremation.)

Even though Jewish law generally decries cremation, its following grows within the religious community. Some Jewish funeral homes note a surge among faithful Jews. As much as one-tenth of the deceased request cremation. In some synagogues of the Reform persuasion, that number might be as high as 15 percent.

Continuing the Taboo

These days, most Jewish scholars say that there is a religion-wide taboo against cremation. Whether they support their congregation’s ability to choose cremation or not, in the context of burial in a Jewish cemetery, as a whole they do not support it. There are a couple of reasons for this ongoing belief. First, most rabbis accept the general scholarly arguments against cremation. The body has been damaged by cremation, they say, and therefore it is not eligible for proper burial services.

Second, some experts argue that the choice to cremate is part of a larger disregard for the formal burial and mourning process. In many cases, they claim, people who have had their loved ones cremated do not go through the proper periods of mourning, including shivah and shloshim. Because the natural process (according to Judaism) has been interrupted, faithful members do not mourn for those who have “strayed from the ways of the community.”

Of course, there are different ways to interpret this claim, as well. Some scholars argue that people should not mourn for their parents who have been cremated. Others say that loved ones should follow the stages of mourning, but that they do not. Those who allow cremated remains to be buried according to Jewish law say that families should endeavor to follow all the proper protocol.

Honoring Parents and Respecting the Law

It is a difficult balance for the loved one’s children or other relatives to reconcile preferences with their belief systems. According to religious teachings, Jews are told not to damage the body, since it belongs to God. But, loved ones may feel pressed to honor their loved one’s decision to be cremated. It is a tug-of-war where people could really end up on either side. The goal for rabbis in more lenient congregations is to make it easier for families to make these difficult decisions, without worrying about dishonoring their parents or disregarding religious precepts.

Finding Middle Ground

Most synagogues, understanding this, will still provide a Jewish burial for those who have been cremated. Their premise is simple. After death, they say, the deceased go to the World of Truth. There, many rabbis assume the deceased will come to understand the importance of an earthly burial. That distinction makes possible the providing a full burial service to those who have been cremated.

Of course, there are several schools of thought on this in the Jewish tradition, and not all of them agree. Some remain steadfast to Jewish traditions against cremation. A few compare the idea of cremation to the Holocaust, where millions of Jews were burned in gas chambers in Eastern Europe. Others look at this as an opportunity to rethink the concept. After all, when World War II ended in Europe, many Jews went to the extermination camps and gathered ashes to bury in Jewish cemeteries. Many rabbis in the Conservative and Reform movements have found that, by recognizing the occasional distinction between religious expectations and reality, they can safely officiate at the burial of cremated remains in Jewish cemeteries. However, those in the Orthodox tradition almost uniformly do not.

Following a Proper Burial Plan

When family members intend to cremate the body of the deceased, they should follow the stages of mourning, including:

• Aninut
• Shivah
• Shloshim
• The First Year

Loved ones must select a container that suits their purposes. Of course, cremated remains may be placed in a casket and buried in a full-sized burial plot. But, many people choose an urn. In either case, the container for the ashes must be kosher, according to Jewish tradition. In practice, this means that the urn must be biodegradable, containing no metal, and produced on a day other than the Sabbath. Tradition generally dictates that a kosher urn ought to be made of wood. However, other biodegradable choices are also acceptable, including urns made of paper or ceramic.

Then, burial services must be observed. Although some say that the ashes may be buried at land or sea, or scattered, most Jewish scholars argue that the cremated remains should be interred in a Jewish cemetery. Those individuals may have Kaddish cited on their behalf. And, loved ones may still give to charity and do mitzvot in their memory.

Although most Jewish scholars maintain that cremation is not allowed within the terms of Jewish law, others see a change on the horizon. While cremation among Jews is much less common than in the U.S. population as a whole, Jewish rabbis are increasingly asked to officiate at the burial of cremated remains in Jewish cemeteries. Some in the religious community interpret this development as a call to action, a time to alter their assumptions and allow those who seek cremation to receive full Jewish burial and mourning services. They encourage their members to follow the proper protocol for burial, whether their loved ones are cremated or not. In this way, they accommodate their members’ changing needs and avoid leaving faithful people out in the cold.

7 Comments

  1. Steve bush
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    What about dust to dust and ashes to ashes?


  2. //

    Hello Steve,

    Good question, depending on your religious views it is important to consider what is best for you or your loved one at the time of passing. The Bible neither favors nor forbids the process of cremation. Although a lot of Christians do believe that their bodies would be ineligible for resurrection if they are cremated. This argument has been contradicted by others though, on the basis of the fact that the body still decomposes over time after burial.

    Sincerely,
    Susan Fraser

  3. Sharon
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    Are there any Jewish funeral homes that will accept cremation? I live in NJ and wondered about that.


  4. //

    Hello Sharon,

    As cremation rises in popularity, some rabbis allow for Jews who have been cremated to continue with a proper burial in a Jewish cemetery. Most synagogues, will provide a Jewish burial for those who have been cremated. This is to honor the final wishes of a loved one. Here is a website providing a list of Jewish Funeral Home directory in New Jersey. All of the funeral homes provided on this page offer cremation services as an option. If you are looking for a Jewish Cremation Urn, we do carry a great selection of earth and water burial urns.

    Sincerely,
    Susan Fraser

  5. Marcia Mugmon
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    I’ve been ill for quite some time. I thought long and hard about funeral arrangements. I know that it will be very difficult for my family and I don’t want them to have to deal with those decisions. I have looked into green burials. I have looked into cremation. Where Jewish law says that your body should be placed in the ground, that’s not what happens in a traditional funeral. In a traditional cemetery, the casket is placed into a concrete box in the ground to protect ground water in the area. To me, that is not ashes to ashes dust to dust. My children know my wishes and I’m sure they’ll honor them. I would like to have a service of course. The rest, I haven’t really decided. My parents funeral plots alone were over $14,000. They purchased them before they passed. For me, take a walk into the mountains and scatter along the way. Either way, I won’t be alone. I got sick while training my search and rescue bloodhound. He’s passed and on my dresser. Scatter us together and I’ll never be alone. Take the money that you would have given to a funeral home and take a cruise to celebrate my life. That would be great


  6. //

    Hello Marcia,

    I’m so sorry you have not been well, pre-planning can be tough but tends to make the process a lot easier for the loved ones left behind. Unfortunately dying can be quite costly. Especially depending on what route you decide to take, whether it be traditional burial or cremation. Cremation has always been the less expensive route though. Its nice to hear your thoughts in regards to Jewish law dealing with cremation, as time goes on the different viewpoints within religions seem to slowly change especially when it comes to how a body is handled after death. Although so many religions will argue what they feel is the ‘proper’ way its always good to choose a route you personally feel most comfortable with, whatever it may be. I have to agree though, the idea of being scattered in the mountains sounds so peaceful, you may want to take a look at some of the
    scattering urns we have to offer, https://goo.gl/B1iEuc. We even offer ones large enough to accommodate you and your beloved bloodhound. If you need any help, you can always call 800-757-3488, and speak with one of our memorial specialists as well.

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