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!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • 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.