What is Judaism’s understanding of cremation?

Jack Sanders, Sacramento, California

Jewish Law does take a strict view with regards to cremation. Regular internment in the ground is considered the honorable and beneficial method of laying the departed to rest, and is the fulfillment of a positive Biblical commandment (a ‘mitzvah’). As such, it would be most unfortunate to deprive the deceased of this procedure by subjecting the body to cremation.

The better one understands the underlying ideas and processes of a burial, the more one can appreciate why cremation is no substitute. To illustrate, let us take a moment to examine the physio-chemical differences between an organism which decomposes in the earth, and one which is consumed by fire. As the process of decomposition begins, the elements of the organism are broken down; but they by no means disappear. In fact, its inherent components remain, but are merely returned to and absorbed by the surrounding earth.

In the case of a decomposing plant, for example, its minerals and nutrients are retained in the ground. These elements — which remain in the soil — actually provide sustenance and life to whatever seedlings should sprout in this area. The original elements give life once again and regenerate in the form of new vegetation.

What would happen to the same plant should it be consumed by flames? The entire organism would undergo a radical physical change. Reduced to ash, its inherent organic materials would by and large be whisked away into the atmosphere and disappear. No new, significant life would be affected through its termination.

R’ Yechiel Michel Tukachinski (Gesher Hachaim, vol. 2, ch. 13; see also vol. 1, 16:9) explains the ritual of burial against this backdrop. One of the tenets of our faith is the principle of ‘Techiyas hameisim’, the resurrection of the dead. As sorrowful as the burial procedure is, the Jew knows deep down that he will see his loved one once again, in a future era. Not only does the soul live on, but it will one day return to its remains, and the body itself — rejuvenated and reunited with its soul — will return to life.

The individual — body with soul — will rise again. The very elements that had constituted his original body will be reconfigured and rebuilt, just as a plant is replenished from the nourishment of the original materials. And so the essentiality of burial should be apparent. Through it, the Jew reaffirms his belief that this body is resting in only a temporary fashion. One day these very elements will rejoin to once again walk this earth. Why consign the body to flames, which will only serve to discard these elements? Instead, the Jewish nation preserves them through the noble institution of burial.

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