Cremation, the process of reducing a body to ashes through intense heat, is generally discouraged in the Jewish community for several reasons rooted in Jewish tradition and teachings. Naturally there are many factors that play into personal family decisions, including costs, location of family, and personal wishes of the deceased. Most Jewish groups and all traditional sources will strongly suggest regular burial.
- Burial in Jewish Law: The Talmud, in Moed Katan 27b, explains that burial is a mitzvah (commandment) derived from Deuteronomy 21:23, which states, “You shall surely bury him.” This commandment underscores the obligation to bury the deceased, reflecting the Jewish belief in the sacredness of the body and the importance of its proper interment.
- Care for the Body: The Torah teaches that humans are created in the image of God, imparting inherent sanctity and dignity to our bodies. As such, Jewish law and tradition emphasize the importance of treating the body with respect, both in life and after death. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 90a, states, “The human form possesses greater sanctity than the form of angels.” This principle highlights the elevated status of the human body and underscores the need for its proper handling.
- Biblical Burial Practices: Burial is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition given its mitzvah status and is seen as the most appropriate and respectful way to handle the deceased. This involves no embalming, fancy clothes or coffins; one is buried with no barrier to the ground, completing cycle of returning the body to the earth. Throughout the Torah, we find numerous instances of the importance placed on proper burial. For example, in the book of Genesis, Abraham purchased a burial cave in Hebron to inter his wife Sarah (Genesis 23). Additionally, the Torah commands in Deuteronomy 21:23, “You shall surely bury him on that day, for a hanging [corpse] is a blasphemy of God.”
- Resurrection of the Dead: Jewish belief includes the principle of the “Techiyat HaMeitim,” which translates to the “Resurrection of the Dead.” According to this belief, at the time of the messianic era, God will resurrect the deceased and reunite their souls with their bodies. Cremation is viewed as a hindrance to this process, as it involves the destruction of the physical body, making it more challenging for the body to be resurrected in the future.
- Historical Context: Throughout Jewish history, cremation has been associated with pagan practices and ideologies that were diametrically opposed to Jewish values and beliefs. During the Holocaust, for example, the Nazis often used cremation as a means to dehumanize and obliterate the Jewish people. As a result, many Jews see cremation as a painful reminder of these horrific events and feel a strong desire to uphold Jewish burial practices as a form of resilience and continuity.
- Historical Significance: Throughout Jewish history, cremation has been associated with pagan rituals and ideologies that run counter to Jewish values. The Jewish people have endured numerous instances of persecution and dehumanization, including the Holocaust, where cremation was employed to annihilate millions of Jews and hide the evidence of their lives and deaths in the camps. As a result, many Jews view cremation as a painful reminder of these atrocities and strive to uphold traditional burial practices as a means of honoring the deceased and preserving Jewish identity.
It is advisable to consult with a knowledgeable rabbi who can answer questions to ensure that any necessary burial arrangements take into account family and individual preference.
Ultimately, the Jewish aversion to cremation is rooted in the belief in the sanctity of the body, the importance of the mitzvah for burial, and the anticipation for the eventual resurrection of the dead. These principles reflect a desire to honor the deceased and maintain a connection to Jewish tradition and heritage.