Confronting Cremation

Violation of Jewish Law or Sensible Modern Ritual?

kurt hoffman

By Regina Sandler-Phillips

Published May 18, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.