A crematorium opened recently in Israel for those who want their remains reduced to ashes.
A decade ago, just more than 20 percent of Americans who died were cremated. By 2005, the rate had risen to 32 percent. The Cremation Association of North America forecasts confidently that by 2025, more than half of Americans will choose to have their remains burned rather than interred.
While no one knows how many of these people are Jewish, there’s little doubt that at least among Jews with limited or no Jewish education, or who have become estranged from Jewish observance, cremation has become acceptable, if not in vogue. And now the Jewish state has it own facility for burning human bodies.
Yet the fact that this new crematorium is the first in Israel bespeaks an essential Jewish attitude toward the practice.
Some Jews recoil from the idea of cremation because the Third Reich incinerated so many of its Jewish victims.
Others, and many non-Jews, disdain the burning of human remains because of infamous cases in which crematory owners, after accepting families’ payments, presented them with urns of animal ashes, turning a further profit from the sale of the bodies to brokers who then sold the body parts.
Judaism’s inherent abhorrence for cremation, however, predates and supersedes both Nazi evils and ghoulish crimes. The roots of the Torah’s insistence on the burial of human remains lie elsewhere.
Judaism’s opposition to cremation is based in the Torah’s statement that humans are created “in the image of God.” As a result, we are charged to show “honor for the dead” by consigning human bodies, in as undisturbed a state as possible, to the earth — even if it means forfeiting the performance of another commandment.
Then there’s the related, fundamental Jewish belief that there will come a time when the dead will live again. Although the idea of the resurrection of the righteous may be surprising to some, it’s one of Judaism’s most important teachings.
The Talmud teaches that the concept is subtly evident in the written Torah’s text, and fully prominent in the Oral Tradition. The Mishnah, the Oral Tradition’s central text, confers such weightiness to the conviction that it places those who deny the eventual resurrection of the dead first among those who “forfeit their share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin, Chapter 11, Mishna 1).
As the Talmud comments, “He denied the resurrection of the dead, so will he be denied a portion in the resurrection of the dead.”
That our bodies are invested with such importance should not be startling. Not only our souls but our physical selves possess inherent holiness. Our bodies, after all, are the indispensable means of performing God’s will. It’s through employing them to do good deeds and denying their gravitations toward sin that we achieve our purposes in this world.
And so, Jewish tradition teaches, even though we are to consign our bodies to the earth after death, there’s a small bone, etzem in Hebrew, that is not destroyed when a body decays and from which the entire person, if he or she so merits, will be rejuvenated at some point in the future.
The idea that a person might be re-created from something tiny — something that can even survive for millennia — should not shock anyone remotely familiar with contemporary science. Each of our cells contains a large and complex molecule, DNA, that is essentially a blueprint of our bodies. Theoretically, one of those molecules from even our long-buried remains could be coaxed to reproduce our physical selves. Intriguingly, the word etzem can mean not only bone but also essence and self.
Burning, in Judaism, is a declaration of utter abandon and nullification. Jews burn leaven and bread before Passover, when the Torah insists that no vestige of the material may be in their possession. The proper means of disposing of an idol is to pulverize or burn it.
Needless to say, God is capable of bringing even ashes to life again — as the ashes of the Nazis’ crematoria victims will demonstrate one day, may it come soon. But actually choosing to have one’s body incinerated is an act that, intended or not, expresses denial of the fact that the body is still valuable, that it retains worth, indeed potential life.
The owner of the new Israeli crematorium, in fact, describes himself as an atheist, as do most if not all of his customers. One, a teacher in Jerusalem, gave eloquent expression to her reasons for choosing cremation, telling The Jerusalem Post, “I was not sanctified in my lifetime, so my grave won’t be sanctified either. I believe that there is nothing after death.”
That’s the philosophy underlying the choice of cremation. It’s the antithesis of the belief system called Judaism.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.