Cremation -- Why Not?

I was once asked to speak with a woman in regard to allowing her recently deceased brother to be buried rather than cremated. He did not leave a Will stating his desire to be buried according to Jewish law.  However, his last request was for a Jewish burial -- and the Jewish Family Services in the city where he died was willing to cover every last expense in burying him.

The woman had not seen her brother for 15 years. She was not inclined to spend the money for a burial; she figured that she would have him cremated and not only save some money, but have the ashes put in a niche in the cemetery that was near her so that she could visit her brother from time to time.

Galileo once said that, "You cannot teach a person anything, you can only help him find it within himself." I failed to find the words and ideas to penetrate her heart to change her mind. It was with great sadness to see her own desires to visit a vase full of ashes put ahead of her brother's dying wish. Hopefully, the following thoughts and information will help someone find the reasons to bury their loved ones with the respect and dignity directed by our Torah, our heritage.

From the perspective of the Torah, life is a gift from the Almighty. We are created with a soul and a body. However, our essence is the soul. The body is a vessel on loan from the Almighty to house the soul.

Like all objects which are on loan, we are obligated to care for the body to the best of our ability and eventually to return it to its Owner according to His instructions. The Almighty told Adam, the first man, "From dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). In the Book of Deuteronomy 21:23, the Almighty says, "You shall surely bury him."

A Jewish burial honors the person by treating his body with great care, compassion and respect.

A shomer, a watch person, stays with the body in the funeral home until the funeral. He or she spends the time saying Tehillim, Psalms, for the merit of the soul.

The Burial Society lovingly cleans the body while reciting prayers. The deceased is then dressed in simple white shrouds. (Close to 2,000 years ago the rabbis made the decree that everyone should be buried in simple linen shrouds.  At that time, people were competing with each other on how nicely they could dress the deceased.)

The coffin is of wood held together with wooden pegs. The all-wooden coffin is a way of recognizing that death is part of life and that decomposition is to be neither hurried nor slowed. In Jerusalem, people are buried without a coffin.

After the Holocaust it is hard to believe that a Jew could request to be cremated or agree to cremate another Jew. I can only imagine Adolph Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out, laughing with glee and saying, "What I failed to do to all of the Jews, now they are doing it to themselves!"

People think that cremation is antiseptic and wholesome. One moment a body, the next moment a sealed urn of fine ash. The reality?  Think of the pungent smell of a roast is left too long in the oven.

Even after incineration, cremation does not reduce everything to ashes. The remains are then put in a grinder -- to make sure that the remaining large pieces of bone will fit into the urn. Can you imagine what is like to listen to the bones of your loved one being ground into little pieces?  Is this the final “honor” one wishes to give to his loved one?

What difference does a proper Jewish burial make to the soul? Kabbalists, mystics, speak of the confusion that a soul experiences in separating from the body in which it had spent its years on earth. The soul hovers over the body. After the burial it then hovers in the place of residence (which is why we try to sit Shiva - mourn - in the place where the person lived) before moving on. What does the soul of the deceased experience when the body is placed into the furnace while watching the flames burning it, the flames consuming it?

What difference does a proper Jewish burial make to the soul? Kabbalists, mystics, speak of the confusion that a soul experiences in separating from the body in which it had spent its years on earth. The soul hovers over the body. After the burial it then hovers in the place of residence before moving on to the Next World.  (This is why, if possible, we sit Shiva -- mourn -- in the place where the person lived.)

If the soul is lost and confused when separated from its body, what do you think the soul experiences while seeing the body placed into a furnace and then watching the flames burning and consuming it?  It’s a frightening thought.

For that matter, what would the dearly departed loved ones – you! -- feel if they had to watch the body being roasted and listen to the screech of the grinder reducing their beloved mother, father, brother, sister or child to charred granular remains?

If one believes in God and believes in an afterlife – both solid Jewish (Torah) core beliefs -- having oneself cremated or cremating a loved one, is not something that one wants on his "heavenly ledger" for which he will be judged.  It is not worth the consequences, the punishment in the World to Come!

Jewish law is so adamantly against cremation that if one has himself cremated, Shiva, mourning, is not observed.  Kaddish is not said and no mourning takes place.

According to Rabbi Maurice Lamm's explanation in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, "Those who are cremated are considered by tradition to have abandoned, unalterably, all of Jewish law and, therefore, to have surrendered their rights to posthumous honor."

 

from the Aish HaTorah Shabbat Shalom Weekly (ShabbatShalom.org) written by Rabbi Kalman Packouz.


To reach Rabbi Packouz, kp@aish.com

Other sites of Rabbi Packouz:

ShabbatShalom.org -- Home site of the Shabbat Shalom Weekly -- insights into life, personal growth and Torah


TheWall.org -- Aish HaTorah Window on the Wall (webcam on the Western Wall, Old City Jerusalem)


PreventIntermarriage.com -- download for free:
"How to Prevent an Intermarriage" -- A Guide for Parents to Prevent Broken Hearts

 

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