ASK THE RABBI

November Question:

What is the Jewish position on cremation?

November 2017 ANSWER:

As usual, there is no single answer to this kind of question.

The traditional, or Orthodox position frowns severely on cremation, noting that according to Genesis 2:7, humans were created from the "dust of the earth", and to dust we are intended to return (Gen. 3:19). Thus, traditional Jewish burial involves a plain wooden coffin (if any coffin at all; see below) without metal nails or other hardware, so that all the contents are biodegradable, returning to the earth from which they originally came.

More recently, because so many victims of The Holocaust were cremated without their own consent, this aversion to cremation has been reinforced.

However, two other recent developments have influenced a lot of Jews in their thinking about end-of-life decisions. First is the fact that in-ground burials are very expensive. This at least in part reflects the fact that land itself is very expensive and very little is being set aside for future burials. A visit to the famous cemeteries on Long Island or other parts of the New York City region will show that these places are very full, and there is no open property anywhere nearby.

Another aspect of this is the fact that funerals and burials are simply very expensive. Both the dying and the survivors are conscious of this, and while wanting to make respectful and meaningful choices, their options are limited by the funds available.

The second development is that families now live very far apart from each other, and visits to cemeteries are not part of most people’s practices, so that the location of the burial of a loved one is almost immaterial. For example, both of my parents are buried in Winnipeg, Canada; none of their survivors visit that city more than very occasionally, so we do not visit their graves at all.

The other thing to take note of is this: Jewish burial practices have changed over time. The Book of Genesis notes that both Jacob and Joseph died in Egypt and were embalmed there, (Gen. 50:2-3 and Gen. 50:26) though embalming is not current Jewish practice at all. About 2000 years ago, prosperous Jews in Jerusalem followed the Roman practice of wrapping dead bodies in herbs and shrouds, leaving them to desiccate for about a year in a dry cave, and then placing the remaining bones in an ossuary (bone box, usually made out of stone) and putting it in family burial cave or mausoleum. Jews other than those who merit state funerals are often buried in the State of Israel without any coffin at all; the shrouded body is placed directly into the grave.

So, while many Jews today reject the idea of cremation, there are reasons why this may become more and more common amongst Jews as time passes.

I have officiated at many funerals that culminated with the burial (in the ground) of ashes, or the placement of ashes in a memorial niche at a cemetery. I take the position that my job is to serve the survivors, and to respect the family’s wishes. Though I might discourage cremation from the traditional perspective, I will accommodate the deceased and the survivors rather than make a difficult time more so.

I hope this clarifies the matter.