At first glance, the two sides of the Jewish cremation dilemma seem clear. Opponents deplore what they see as a violation of Jewish law, desecration of the body and callous indifference to the memory of the Holocaust.
Proponents claim that cremation is less costly and more ecological, and that it saves land for the living. Yet a closer examination reveals a much more complicated picture. We need a Jewish conversation that speaks to the realities of both cremation and burial. This conversation is difficult because it involves facing death — not the illusory death of movies and computer games, but real and inevitable mortality — and what it means for our lives.
Levayah, the Hebrew word for “funeral,” actually means “accompanying.” Whether we bury or burn, our willingness to accompany is usually quite limited. Between medical pronouncement and final disposition, our dead are typically wrapped up and taken away to preparations of which we have only the vaguest knowledge. It’s much easier to focus on the details of a product — an urn or a coffin, a memorial plaque or a headstone — than on honoring and protecting a body in transition.
Jewish funeral imperatives are derived from the biblical precept that even the corpse of an executed criminal deserves protection from desecration. Levayah also incorporates such traditional but still relevant principles as biodegradability (“To dust you shall return”), sustainability (“Do not waste or destroy”), simplicity and equality (“All should be brought out on a plain bier for the honor of the poor”). With this in mind, we can approach the questions about cremation that make it most problematic for Jews.
Is cremation a violation of Jewish law? Orthodox rabbinic authorities maintain that it is. Meanwhile, the Conservative movement in 1986 unanimously adopted a rabbinic ruling: “Even though our tradition has clearly developed a taboo against cremation, there is no explicit source in the Bible or in the Talmud against it.” That being said, the “sacred established tradition” of burial should be upheld, and “if the body has been cremated, there is still a positive mitzvah to bury the ashes.”
Two years later, Reform rabbinic leaders also went on record to discourage the scattering of cremated remains in favor of their burial. Unfortunately, these rabbinic decisions are at cross-purposes with the established regulations of many Jewish cemeteries, which forbid precisely such interment of cremated remains.
Is cremation a desecration of the body? While some world cultures have cremated their dead with the utmost reverence for millennia, it is crucial to understand North American industrial procedures. Bodies are warehoused before each one is incinerated at four-digit temperatures for two to three hours. Afterward, bone fragments and other residue are further pulverized before they are boxed and returned. The absence of family and community members is as stark as it is standard.
Mistakes do happen. At best, “ashes” returned may not actually be those of one’s family member. At worst, there is the risk of falling prey to one of the many scandals of real criminal desecration that surface regularly throughout the United States, to the devastation of surviving kin.