Jewish cremation: beliefs
For centuries, Jewish law, or Halachah, has mandated that burial in the ground is the only acceptable option for Jewish families when caring for a loved one who has passed. Yet today, despite tradition and continued opposition from some in the Jewish community, many Jewish people are choosing cremation instead of – or as part of – traditional burial.
Traditional Jewish preference for burial
Throughout Jewish history, religious leaders and followers have presented many arguments against cremation. Members of the Jewish faith often prefer burial to comply with religious beliefs about ownership of the body, the soul’s connection to the human body and the mourning process.
Centuries ago, cremation was a pagan practice, and has since been associated with pagan religious beliefs. Jewish communities were always encouraged to separate themselves as much as possible from pagan rituals, which led to a widespread dislike of cremation among Jewish people. Today, many religious communities still view cremation as a pagan practice. The association of cremation with paganism leads some Jewish leaders to think anyone who chooses cremation is denying the word of God.
Ownership of the body
The care of a loved one who has passed is especially important in Judaism. In Jewish law, the human body belongs to God, not to the individual. The Torah states that the human body was created in the image and likeness of God and is His property, while the individual is only borrowing the body for his or her time on earth. Cremation is then seen as destruction of property, rather than a personal decision made about one’s end of life care. Burial is seen as the preferred Jewish practice, as it returns the borrowed body to the ground as it was given to them.
The soul’s connection to the body
The Jewish mystical tradition, or Kabbalah, holds that the soul does not immediately depart the body upon death. The separation of body and soul is said to happen gradually as the body decays in the earth. Jewish tradition calls for burial because it allows the soul to slowly depart the body and find comfort in its new home. Many Jewish communities view cremation as an interruption to this process, believing it forces an immediate separation of the body and soul.
The belief that the soul slowly departs from the body speeds up the funeral process, as family members want to ease their loved ones through to the other side quickly. Traditionally, Jewish funerals are scheduled for the earliest possible time, ideally on the same day as the passing, so the soul can reach eternal rest as quickly as possible.
This belief that the soul is still attached to the body also prohibits Jewish followers from embalming the body, burying the body in a mausoleum, or donating the body to science. To expedite the decay, a proper Jewish burial is to take place immediately, and the body is to be buried in a wooden casket, without any metal materials.
Cremation is sometimes seen as a disregard for the formal funeral service and traditional mourning process. Though cremation does not preclude a family from engaging in the traditional Jewish mourning process, it is a departure from the traditional burial that usually takes place. Religious leaders fear that families who choose to cremate their loved ones will not go through the proper periods of mourning, including shivah and shloshim.
Jewish scholars turn to religious texts as justification for burial preference.
The Talmud, the primary source of Jewish religious law and theology, considers cremation at length, ultimately concluding that Jewish religious obligations require burial.
The belief in the resurrection of the dead is one of Maimonides Thirteen Fundamental Principles of Judaism. Many believe that cremation obstructs the resurrection process, thus going against one of the thirteen principles.
Deuteronomy 21:23 directly references burial, saying bodies should be buried immediately: “Be sure to bury it that same day. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance,” Deuteronomy states.” If a body isn’t immediately buried, it is seen as a rejecting this mitzvah, or commandment.
In Genesis, God tells Adam that he will be buried upon his death, “You will return to the ground,” God says, “for it was from the ground that you were taken.” This same passage is also used as evidence that cremation is a viable option for Jewish families. The following lines read, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Though God told Adam he would be buried, many religious scholars now think that the burial of ashes still complies with God’s request.
However, despite traditional opposition, Jewish families are increasingly choosing cremation.
What happens if you choose cremation?
As cremation has become a more popular option for Americans, more Jewish families are foregoing burial, forcing Jewish authorities to reconsider their policies. Some issues that have been up for debate include whether ashes can be interred in a Jewish cemetery and whether a rabbi may officiate at a funeral for someone who has been cremated.
Jewish law does not prohibit ashes from being buried, and most Jewish burial grounds do not exclude people who have been cremated. In some extreme cases, individual burial societies or Jewish cemeteries may decline to inter ashes to deter other Jewish families from choosing cremation.
The Reform movement has become much more accepting of cremation, explicitly saying that ashes should be buried in a Jewish cemetery, though some cemeteries may require that you first place the ashes in a wood coffin, as is traditional for a proper burial.
Many Jewish funeral homes and Jewish cemeteries have also begun servicing their community members who choose cremation, offering cremation-specific services. It is not uncommon for Jewish funeral homes to offer cremation services, urns, and help organize a traditional Jewish funeral service. Similarly, most Jewish cemeteries have dedicated space for urns, and also allow ashes to be buried in plots traditionally reserved for body burial.
Both Conservative and Reform movements within Judaism let their rabbis officiate at the funerals of people who will be cremated. Orthodox rabbis are not granted the same leeway.
Why is cremation growing in popularity in Jewish communities?
Jewish families may choose cremation for a variety of reasons, including cost, travel concerns, cultural influences, and more.
Burial can cost upwards of $10,000, while some cremation providers have packages as low as $600. When choosing between burial and cremation, cost is a consideration for many families.
If families would like to transport their loved one, cremation is the better option. Many Jewish families choose to return their loved one to Israel after passing. Transporting a body can become expensive and complicated very quickly, between removal, preparation, international flights, shipping containers, and customs. Some families choose cremation as a simpler, more affordable alternative, where they can fly with the ashes to Israel themselves.
Cultural influences have always played a role in Jewish attitudes toward cremation. Though Judaism traditionally disapproved of cremation, attitudes shifted when cemeteries in Europe began running out of space. Similarly, the current cultural climate has affected Jewish families considering end of life options. As cremation grows extremely popular among Americans, many liberal Jewish families have become more comfortable with the idea.
Though many Jewish families view cremation as an alternative to a traditional Jewish funeral, that is not always the case. You can still mourn and host a traditional Jewish service with ashes present, rather than a body. For more information, consult your religious leader to learn about how cremation fits into a ceremony for your loved one.
If you are considering cremation and are unsure about how your religious community feels about the decision, speak to your religious leader for guidance. Carefully consider your own position on cremation and make the choice that you believe is right for you and your family.
If you would like more information or have questions about cremation, call (844) 942-4909. Tulip Cremation offers affordable, simple direct cremation plans starting at just $600. Our Family Care Team is available 24/7 to answer your questions and help you make arrangements today.