Cremation: A Jewish Perspective

Cremation: A Jewish Perspective

By Stan Kaplan, Executive Director, Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachussetts

Good morning and thank you for coming to JCAM’s 2nd Annual Management Symposium for Massachusetts Jewish Cemeteries. I’m Stan Kaplan, JCAM’s Executive Director, I will be serving as your moderator this morning. Shalom Aleichem. "What does Judaism say about cremation" is our final subject for today.

To begin, I attended a 2-day national Chevra Kadisha conference in Berkeley California this past June.

The key Plenary session was entitled : “Ground Burial and Cremation – Text Study – Historical Trends – Responsa – Impact on Cemeteries – Impact on the Chevra Kadisha – Perspective of Rabbis – Strategies – Etc.”

I reference this conference this morning to establish some credentials on the subject and that even though I am not a Rabbi, I have conducted considerable research on the practice of cremation and the Jewish response.

My task here today is not to tell anyone what to do or not do regarding cremation; my task is only to inform you about what you should know – from the perspective of Jewish burial customs and traditions.

Here’s what I can tell you.

No matter what branch of Judaism you adhere to, (Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) “in ground burial” is considered a mitzvah and cremation an abomination. This relationship between the body and the ground has molded Jewish law from the Torah and the Talmud for thousands of years.

“By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return unto the ground, from which you were taken: For you are dust, and to the dust shall you return.”

- Bereshit 3:19

When a person decides to choose cremation, for whatever reason, over in-ground burial, they are in fact saying that they do not believe in Judaism’s belief of a bodily resurrection. Resurrection is a fundamental belief of Judaism, as expressed in Maimonides’ classical “13 Principles of Faith.”

“I believe with complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead, whenever the wish emanates from the Creator.”

(Based on Deut. 21:23, and Maimonides – Laws of Sanhedrin 15:8).

Having said that, all branches of Judaism accept cremation under certain circumstances. While Reform Judaism calls cremation “a crisis of faith,” their responsa permits cremation as a right of individual choice.

Conservative Judaism takes a stronger position against the practice of cremation. A person who decides to be cremated may do so but a Rabbi must not officiate at the ceremony on the cemetery.

Orthodox Judaism permits cremation only as an “after fact” and never to be planned in advance. That is to say, when the Russian Jewish community came to Boston in large numbers in the 1980’s and 1990’s they brought with them the ashes of loved ones because the custom of Russian Jews was cremation. Those cremated remains were allowed to be buried on Orthodox Jewish cemeteries because it was “after the fact” and not “before the fact”.

As stated by Rabbi Shraga Simmons, of Aish.com, “Jewish tradition records that with burial, a single bone in the back of the neck never decays. It is from this bone—called the luz(luzz) bone—that the human body will be rebuilt in the future Messianic Era when all the dead will be resurrected. With cremation, that bone can be destroyed, and the resurrection process stymied.” (Cremation, Simmons 2009).

That’s the religious perspective—resurrection. But now let’s look at cremation through the lens of a modern geneticist.

DNA—the Blueprint of Your Existence

Consider that all living things have its own set of unique blueprints —its genetic DNA, and human beings are no different. Once a living thing is cremated, the DNA ceases to exist. Not only does the high heat of burning destroy the genetic compound, but also the pulverization of bone fragments, which occurs after the cremation process (the ashes), completely destroys any traces of DNA. So in the physical sense, after cremation the living thing is as if it never existed. There is no trace left of its DNA. It’s like wiping out your spiritual DNA afterlife.

Organ Donation vs. Cremation

While cremation is the destruction of the physical body and DNA, organ donation can be for some, a way of performing “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world). Organ donations, in a sense, can be one of the highest forms of selflessness, a mitzvah, and in a true sense, a life-sustaining act.

And for those of us who believe that resurrection is possible only if our bodies remain intact (which is the traditional Jewish perspective) might I suggest to you that if Hashem is powerful enough to resurrect a body, surly Hashem would be capable of finding us an eye, a liver or a kidney when the time comes!

The Effects on the Family

The decision to be cremated not only affects the deceased but the family left behind. Rabbi Stuart Kelman, President Kvod v’Nichum (Order and Comfort) said recently at the 7th Annual National Chevra Kadisha Conference, “I can’t tell you the number of times people who have had close relatives cremated come to me and say it’s as if they just disappeared. There’s no closure for them.”

From my own personal perspective, to choose cremation in the post Holocaust world is not only abhorrent but a blind act. The Nazi’s chose cremation for the Jews to destroy any remnants of Jewish civilization forever—to wipe us off the face of this earth. For any Jew to now adopt the practice of cremation ignores the horrors of the Holocaust and the crematoriums of the concentration camps. To which I say Never again!

So there’s a lot to consider on the subject of cremation and the Jewish response. I hope I have succeeded in providing you with a kaleidoscope of thoughts from within our diverse community. Thank you.

Todah Rabbah

B’ Shalom
Stan Kaplan
Executive Director
Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts