Burial Versus Cremation in Jewish Tradition
by Jack E. Shattuck


The author, a former rabbinical seminarian, cautions that the following is not intended to provide a definitive statement of rabbinical law (halachah), but rather provides a general summary of overall Jewish perspective on the subject.  For a ruling on Jewish law, one should consult an orthodox rabbi.

Judaism, from early times, accepted burial as the normal disposition of remains after death.  Even before the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, the patriarchs and matriarchs observed that tradition -- as found in the Book of Genesis for Abraham (Gen. 15:15; 25:9,10), Isaac (Gen. 35:8, 19), Jacob (Gen. 49:29,30; 50:5 ff.), Sarah (Gen. 23), Rebecca and Leah (Gen. 49:31), and Rachel (Gen. 48:7), and even Rebecca's nurse, Deborah  (Gen. 35:8, 19).  Joseph went so far as to insist that he not be permanently interred in the non-Jewish surroundings in which he lived, but rather that his body be returned to the land of his fathers for burial (Gen. 47:29. 30), a promise fulfilled by Moses (Ex. 13:19).

A rabbinic legend proposes that the first victim of death among mankind, Adam, was buried by Cain (Gen. 4:8-11), after getting the idea by seeing one bird burying the other's remains after a battle (Tanhuma Bereshit).  This example also teaches us that a clean bird's blood must be buried after ritual slaughter.  Further, we are taught in Talmud (b. Sotah 14a) that one of the ways a Jew performs acts of righteousness by imitating the way of the Almighty is in burying the dead, as we understand that G-d Himself did for Moses (Deut. 34:6).

One of the prime intents of burial is to avoid Nivvul HaGuf, mutilation of the body.  This applies to either animal or human marauders.  Both physical and spiritual pollution from leaving a corpse unburied should be avoided.  Another rabbinic legend hints that Isaac once proposed that his ashes be placed in an urn for his family to recall him.  Thee suggestion, if ever actually made, was ignored -- Isaac is buried with the other patriarchs -- and the sages tell us that one should not keep remains at home, to avoid contamination of others.  The burial obligation is so great that even the High Priest, who went to great lengths to avoid pollution, must perform the duty (met mitzvah) if no one else is around and a dead body is found.

   Biblical examples of death by buirning (Gen. 38:34; Lev. 20:14, 21:9; Josh. 7:15,25) are considered examples of disgrace, and/or tragic situations (such as plague, cf. Amos 6:10).  Where part of the body may have been burned (even to avoid disgrace, (I Sam. 31:12),the remainder should be properly buried (this being the rabbinic understanding of the seeming conflict with II Chron. 16:1). Burial itself is said to provide a form of atonement.

Many sages consider the obligation that "you shall surely bury him" (Deut. 21:23) to be one of the positive commandments among the basic 613 in all of Torah (Maimonides, Yorah Deah 362).  Even should it not be, a custom in Israel of such antiquity is considered to have the force of law.  In fact, any one who orders another before his death that his remains be disposed of other than by burial should have his wishes disregarded, we are told in the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 46b).

Rabbi Maurice Lamm, writing of mourning practices, recalls to us that the body is to be treated with such great respect because it is only through the vessel of the physical body that we have been able to carry out not only life itself, but specifically, the heavenly commandments which have enriched and hallowed our lives.  The body is thus more than just a physical shell; it is a holy instrument.

  In  a similar vein, we commend a worn or damaged Torah scrollto be reverently buried upon its removed from sacred use, rather than have it rapidly and violently consigned to cosmic scattering to the four winds.    Whether body parts, prayer books or prayer shawls, the principle and disposition of these holy objects remain the same.

The rabbinic account of man (adam)'s creation from the dusts of the earth (adamah) had G-d bring together diverse colors and substances from all directions of the land in order to make His holy vessel.  Yet it finally must be laid to rest in the state we received it, instead of being returned to a state of Chaos.  Even the Golem of legend (to which some attribute the Frankenstein story) returned to the mud from which it was formed when the Holy Name was extracted from it.


     During World War II, the National Jewish Welfare Board Division of Religious Activies had a unique combined review board of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis addressing the needs of Jews in the Armed Forces.  They discussed the issue of burying ashes of cremated victims killed by our enemies during the War.  Not everyone agreed that burial was permitted in a Jewish cemetery for such remains; the feeling against cremation was so abhorrent.  They advised that "[the] general question of cremation and Jewish law does not have to be restudied.  The overwhelming opinion is that cremation is forbidden ..."

     However, since cremation already had occurred (here imposed by an outside adversary), for those accepting burial under such circumstances, the rabbis held that "in order not to give the impression that the burial of the ashes of the cremated is to be permitted in general, we advise that the urn be placed in a regular sized coffin and buried in a regular size grave."  While we should avoid disgracing the dead, we also must not create grief for relatives who see burial as a normal way of saying farewell to the departed.

     As to a concern that non-burial should be shunned because it may imply rejection of the belief in T'chiat haMetim (resurrection of the dead when the Messiah arrives), one should respond instead that we should not doubt the Almighty's ability to bring back the deceased from wherever and however their remains may have been dissolved (if not buried whole).  More significant is that the failure to adhere to the Jewish tradition of burial of the dead is a denial of being a part of the Jewish people, and as a Jew, you must "be heedful of the customs which you have from your father" (b. Betzah 4b).  Even a non-believing Jew is called to account for denying's one heritage.

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