Jewish View on Cremation

The short answer...

The short answer is that Judaism absolutely rejects cremation. Why is that?

The Mitzvah of Burial

The Torah States in Deuteronomy 21:23 ”…You should surely bury him that day, for it is humiliating to God, for him to linger in a state of dishonor…”

From here we see that there is a Mitzvah to bury our dead. We also see that because each person is created in the image of God, that our humiliation is God’s humiliation, and that God wants our bodies to be dealt with respectfully and returned to the earth. Cremation is a violent destruction of the body that leaves nothing to be buried.

What the soul needs

It says in Ecclesiastes 12:7 “The dust returns to the earth as it was and the soul returns to God who gave it.” Our rabbis teach us that these are not two disjointed statements that happen to appear in the same verse, but rather they are closely connected and even codependent. The soul cannot go on its journey back to its source, God, until the body is returned to its source, the earth. 

One way to understand this is that the body and soul are partners. The soul has very lofty goals and aspirations to achieve spiritual greatness and to choose right over wrong. But there’s not a single Mitzvah in this world that the soul can do without the body. 

The soul leaves the body, leaves this world, and is clinging to God. This renders the body useless to the soul. What would we expect the attitude of the soul to be vis a vis the body? Should the soul move on without turning back, and just disregard the body? Or should the soul be concerned for its life-partner and be desirous of its care? What care does the body need? The body needs to be returned to the earth, which is its source, and only once the body is at peace, is the soul then at peace. Can we imagine how painful it must be for the soul, for the essence of the person, to see its partner, the body destroyed by fire!?!

ends versus Means

An underlying lesson of so many mitzvot is that it’s not where you are that matters, it’s how you got there. We all have family recipes for Passover goodies that taste just like chametz (we all have recipes that fall short as well!!) so if it all tastes the same, why does it matter? The answer is that it’s not the brownie or the matza ball that’s going to make a difference in our lives, it’s contemplating the process of baking it that reminds us of God’s love for us and the miracles of the Exodus that showed that love.

It’s the means which are important, it’s not the end.

The reality of cremation is that the only reason people consider cremation is because the name is “cremation” (and not “burning” or “incineration”), and they’ve heard of others choosing it. Both of those factors make cremation mainstream and get us to focus on the result and not the process. But the process is important. (Trigger warning- graphic content to follow)

Cremation is a violent process in which the body is burned by a propane torch for hours. While all of the soft tissue is destroyed by that process, many charred bones remain. The bones and ashes are raked into a container and “processed” meaning they are pulverized in a machine. 

Behind door number two is a peaceful and natural process of returning the body to the earth by means of Jewish burial. Which process do you prefer?