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Parshas Ki Teitzei (5776)

Traditional Jewish Burial vs Cremation: A "Burning" Issue

Many years ago, I was in my car tuning in to a popular radio talk show when a fellow called in to complain about the high cost of funerals these days. The talk show host suggested various ways that people planning on dying in the future could substantially lower the costs of funeral services, caskets, and burial plots. He then added that he was going to spend very little money when his time came, because he was going to have his body cremated for a one-time fee of just $600. Reminds me of a joke:

Pomerantz the plumber was talking to the undertaker about the final disposition of his mother-in-law's remains.
"Shall I cremate, embalm, or just bury her as she is?" asked the mortician.
"Why take chances?" said Pomerantz quickly. "All three!"

But, seriously, folks, the issue of cremation versus traditional Jewish burial is no laughing matter .... and neither are the costs involved. I can definitely understand why some Jews would opt for cremation over the traditional Jewish burial in a casket in the ground. I mean, funeral and burial costs can kill you. There are some caskets that go for as much as $36,000! You know ..... Corinthian leather, central air, 14k gold-plated, Dolby surround-sound system, the works - and that doesn't even include the perpetual care fees after interment in the ground!

Okay, so nowadays you can go online and prepay for your entire funeral with either your basic wooden box or an even more economical cardboard box, and there are even certain plans you can buy into to cut the costs of the burial plot and continued maintenance (check out their new "layaway" plan!). But it'll still cost you a pretty penny.

Cremation, on the other hand, is relatively inexpensive, and one technically doesn't even need to purchase a burial plot ..... the mantle above the fireplace would be a great place to put Grandpa. And think of all the gas you'll save by not having to drive way out to the cemetery! What's more, cremation is also very neat and efficient. So it didn't shock me that the radio guy would preach cremation as the way to go. After all, you know the old saying .... a penny saved is a body "urn"ed!

What did disturb me, though, is that this talk show host - a Jew - and many other Jews like him, are sadly ignorant of the traditional Jewish position on the proper burial for a deceased person. And though it might make more financial sense to have our remains cremated .... there are some things that are more valuable to us as Jews than a few extra dollars in our pockets (or, in this case, in our heirs' pockets).

THE BIBLICAL "GROUNDS" FOR TRADITIONAL JEWISH BURIAL

The Torah in this week's portion, Parshas Ki Seitzei, describes the burial procedure for someone who dies as follows: “.... his body shall not remain for the night .... rather you shall surely bury him on that day ....” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 46b states: Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: How do we know from the Torah that a person who leaves his deceased relative unburied overnight transgresses thereby a negative commandment? From the passage, "You shall surely bury him on that day" ..... Where do we find an allusion in the Torah that it is a mitzvah to bury the dead [in the ground]? Because it says, "You shall surely bury him". This is an allusion in the Torah to the mitzvah of burial [in the ground].

In these passages we are being taught the traditional Jewish outlook regarding the proper burial of a deceased person. The Torah requires that the person be buried in the ground, as soon as possible following death. The religious concept underlying this law is that man, made in the image of G-d, should be accorded the deepest respect. It is considered a matter of great disrespect and shame to leave the deceased unburied. Jewish law is unequivocal in establishing absolutely, and uncompromisingly, that the dead must be buried in the earth. Cremation is never permitted. The deceased must be interred, bodily, in the earth. It is forbidden - in any and every circumstance, even if the deceased had specifically requested it - to reduce the dead to ash in a crematorium.

So, according to the Torah, it seems that the best thing we can do for a deceased relative is to bury him directly in the ground as soon as possible after his death. Let's understand why.

OUR SOULS ARE JUST DYING TO LEAVE OUR BODIES

When our forefather Jacob died in Egypt, the Torah tells us that his son Joseph, then viceroy of the entire country, ordered his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father.

Embalming was an Egyptian custom involving the use of a mixture of aromatic spices that would preserve the body from dissolution and decomposition in the grave. Numerous mummies have been found in a state of preservation that testifies to the skill of the ancient embalmers.

Jewish law, however, forbids embalming; it mandates an unimpeded return to the elements by burial in the earth so that the body will decompose naturally. The soul rises to G-d, but the physical shelter, the chemical elements that clothed the soul, sink into the vast reservoir of nature. G-d's words to Adam were, "For you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:10). The commentators are thus troubled how it was that Joseph ordered his physicians to embalm his father when the Torah forbids it.

The truth is that Joseph did not go against the Torah at all. This is because the Torah only forbids embalming a person who has died. With regard to the patriarch Jacob, however, the Talmud in Taanis 5b tells us that "Our father Jacob did not die". Now, I bet you're wondering .... what does that mean?

The Resisei Laylah (quoted in the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash in Parshas Vayechi) explains that Jacob had so perfected his body that it was no contradiction whatever to his soul. 'Death' is a wrenching, painful concept only because - and to the extent that - it involves the removal of the soul from a material existence it has come to crave. The more materially lustful a person is, and the more he identifies himself with his body, the less he can bear to part from this life for the holier one awaiting him. And the more spiritual his life on earth has become, and the more he identifies himself with his spiritual soul, the less he cares to be encumbered by his body with its demands and animal instincts. Jacob had perfected himself to the point where leaving earthly life meant no more to him than removing a coat means to us. His soul simply discarded its earthly remnant - his body - and continued essentially unchanged. 'Death' in the deeper sense simply did not exist for Jacob - hence he did not 'die'.

Now, for most of us who are nowhere near the spiritual level of our forefather Jacob, it's a whole different story. The Malbim explains why Jewish law requires burial in the ground, and of the sort that will not delay the natural decomposition of the body. To the extent that man sins, utilizing his heavenly soul in the service of his body and its material needs and desires, the soul identifies and bonds with the body. And upon death, the soul still clings to the body, finding it difficult to depart from its "partner in crime", and is unable to return Heavenward to G-d from whence it came. Only as the body decomposes does the spirit become free to return to its heavenly home. Slowly, the soul goes through a painful separation from the body, ultimately coming to the realization that the body was merely a casing for it to move around in this world, but not its true identity.

Embalming, therefore, is a disservice to the deceased because by preserving the body, it entraps the soul. In Jacob's case, however, his life was so righteous and holy that his spirit had been totally freed of any bodily attachment. He so identified in his lifetime with his true self - his neshamah, his soul - that after his death he could easily part from his physical body, even if it were preserved by embalming and thus not decomposing.

CREMATION: A PAINFUL DECISION

We can now better understand the Torah's commandment to bury the deceased in the ground as soon as possible, as well as its stern and unequivocal warning never to cremate the remains under any and all circumstances. As we have shown, the process of decomposition of the body - as gross and uncomfortable as that sounds to us - is a necessary and integral part of the soul's eventual return to G-d and to true serenity and peace. And the sooner that process starts, the better it is for the soul of our departed loved one.

At the same time, we must realize that it takes time for the soul of the deceased to come to terms with its new reality - that the body which housed it and with which it so identified for so many years is no longer attached to it. As mentioned earlier, it is a painful process for the soul to adjust to this new stage, witnessing the decomposition of its body - itself, in a sense - right in front of its eyes. And our tradition teaches us that when the body of the deceased is cremated, the soul suffers great shock and incredible pain at the unnaturally sudden destruction of its bodily home. Only through a slow process of in-ground burial and gradual decomposition can the soul come to terms with its loss and finally gain eternal rest in heaven. [What about the millions of Jews cremated in Nazi ovens? The Al-mighty certainly guarded their souls from needless agony.]

Another reason for the prohibition against cremating the body has to do with the Jewish tradition of the future Resurrection .... but enough for now.

REST IN PEACE .... OR REST IN PIECES: THE CHOICE IS OURS

Now I certainly realize that many Jews who are considering cremation for their loved ones or for themselves don't necessarily believe in the Afterlife, or, for that matter, in the existence of a "soul" in the first place. In which case the entire argument presented here against cremation is, well, kind of moot.

And while there are definitely some good emotional arguments against turning our bodies into ashes - did you know that the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichman’s remains were cremated by the Israeli government and spread over the waters of the Mediterranean outside of Israeli territory - and that by being buried in the ground, we give our living relatives a tangible and "visitable" place where they can come and mourn and remember us .... there are also some good arguments in favor of cremation. And they are not only economical. You might have heard this joke:

An elderly Jewish woman, hovering near death, calls in a rabbi. "I have two requests before I die," she says. "First, I want to be cremated."
"But that's absolutely forbidden," the rabbi answers. "Jewish law considers cremation the grossest disrespect to a dead body."
"I don't care," the woman says, "I want to be cremated."
The argument drags on, but the rabbi sees he is making no headway. "What's your second request?" he finally asks wearily.
"I want my ashes scattered over Bloomingdale's Department Store."
"Why, in G-d's name, do you want to do that?" the rabbi shouts.
"That way, I'm sure my daughters will visit me at least twice a week."

Ultimately, G-d gave all of us free will, and the decision of whether we are going to have a traditional Jewish burial as was the custom of our grandparents and great-grandparents and all Jews for thousands of years, or if we are going to opt for the "cheap" way out and have our remains cremated and stored in a little urn on our kids' coffee table .... is one that is ultimately ours to make and no one else's.

But one thing we should remember when making this monumental, once-in-a-deathtime decision. And that is that maybe, just maybe, the Torah is true and our dearly departed relative does have a G-dly soul, and that soul is yearning to go to its final resting place in Heaven with G-d, and that by cremating the body we are causing him or her incredible pain and anguish in a way that could have simply been avoided for a little more money! Who knows, maybe there is something to the way Jews have been living and dying for the last 3300 years ….

So, when it comes time to plan for these unfortunate occasions, let's learn from the Torah and from our ancestors and make a decision that our dead relatives can live with .... in eternal peace and without pain.

[To learn more about the cremation vs. burial issue, I highly recommend Doron Kornbluth’s excellent book Cremation or Burial: A Jewish View, published by Mosaica Press.]

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