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.