Fac­ing the de­mand for cre­ma­tion


Should rab­bis refuse to be party to an act that runs counter to Halachah, or are they obliged not to turn away a Jew who wants a Jewish fu­neral? Rabbi Korobkin: There are rules dic­tat­ing how one’s body is to be treated af­ter death. Our chevra kadisha (Jewish burial so­ci­ety) goes to great pains to bathe and clothe the body, and re­cite spe­cial prayers, all of which show great re­spect and sen­si­tiv­ity to the de­ceased’s re­mains. Our tra­di­tion also calls for a Jew to be buried in a Jewish ceme­tery.

Above all, Halachah (Jewish law) ab­so­lutely pro­hibits cre­ma­tion, and views it as an un­nat­u­ral de­struc­tion of the body. And yet, to­day, for both so­cial and eco­nomic rea­sons, more and more Jews are opt­ing for un­con­ven­tional care of their re­mains, es­pe­cially cre­ma­tion.

What do you do when faced with a con­gre­gant or a con­gre­gant’s loved one who would like to be cre­mated? Is it an is­sue for Re­form Ju­daism?

Rabbi Grushcow: My own strong be­lief is in re­turn­ing the body to the earth whole, as we re­ceived it. But many Jews to­day choose cre­ma­tion, and I be­lieve that part of hon­our­ing them in death – not to men­tion com­fort­ing their mourn­ers – in­volves hon­our­ing the choices they made in life.

The tra­di­tional rea­son be­hind the pro­hi­bi­tion against cre­ma­tion has to do with bod­ily res­ur­rec­tion, which many Jews do not be­lieve in. (I hap­pen to think that if God can res­ur­rect the dead, God will be able to use what­ever raw ma­te­ri­als we pro­vide.) The more modern, so­ci­o­log­i­cal op­po­si­tion to cre­ma­tion has to do with the hor­rors of the Holo­caust.

But I have en­coun­tered Jews whose rel­a­tives were mur­dered in the camps, who want to be cre­mated pre­cisely so they can feel a con­nec­tion to their loved ones in death. For me, th­ese are times when rab­binic pres­ence and sup­port are paramount. I will not turn away a Jew who wants a Jewish fu­neral, even if their choices in­volve cre­ma­tion.

Rabbi Korobkin: Your de­sire to help our fel­low Jew at this es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble time is cer­tainly ad­mirable. I

would only sug­gest that two things be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.

First, for cen­turies Jews have un­der­stood that burial is a bi­b­li­cal com­mand­ment (based on Deuteron­omy 21:23). Leav­ing in­struc­tions to be buried is the last mitz­vah that a per­son can ful­fill. The midrash speaks of the very first per­son in the Bi­ble to die, Adam’s son Abel. Adam was dis­traught over what to do with his body, un­til he saw a bird tak­ing his mate’s body and bury­ing it in the ground. The midrash’s mes­sage is that not only is this a bi­b­li­cal di­rec­tive, but also a pat­tern of be­hav­iour that oc­curs in na­ture. Had the To­rah not com­manded us to do it, we could in­fer it from the nat­u­ral or­der.

Sec­ond, burial is char­ac­ter­ized as “plant­ing” in many tra­di­tional texts. Death is viewed as a tem­po­rary con­di­tion that will one day be al­le­vi­ated through res­ur­rec­tion. The Tal­mud de­scribes burial as the first stage of the res­ur­rec­tion process, en­abling the body to one day sprout forth from its rest­ing place and re­unite with its soul. (That’s not to say that res­ur­rec­tion won’t oc­cur for those who aren’t buried, but burial fa­cil­i­tates that process).

While I ap­pre­ci­ate that not ev­ery­one’s sen­si­bil­i­ties will be moved by th­ese re­li­gious con­sid­er­a­tions, I hope that at least some peo­ple will think twice be­fore opt­ing for cre­ma­tion.

Rabbi Grushcow: I en­cour­age burial as well, which is why I am so glad that our con­gre­ga­tion of­fers the pos­si­bil­ity of bury­ing cre­mated re­mains. We have re­cently cre­ated a sec­tion of our ceme­tery to do ex­actly that, so that the life of the de­ceased has a marker and the mourn­ers have a place to go.

To be a rabbi in the modern age is to bal­ance many roles. We are chal­lenged to be both teach­ers and pas­tors, shar­ing To­rah and heal­ing hearts. When it comes to death and mourn­ing, there is great wis­dom that our re­li­gion can share and pro­found guid­ance in a time of loss.

The re­al­ity is that some mem­bers of our com­mu­nity will fol­low all the tra­di­tional rules, while many more will keep some and re­ject or rein­ter­pret oth­ers. Of­ten, you will find mul­ti­ple ap­proaches within the same fam­ily, and here, it’s es­sen­tial for peo­ple to speak to each other about their choices and their val­ues. Above all, when our peo­ple are walk­ing through the val­ley of the shadow, I pray we are able to walk with them.

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