Help All Jews Choose Burial
The Cremation Tragedy
Thirty thousand American Jews are cremated every year.
In the time it takes you to read this, another Jewish body will have been consigned to the flames. And that’s just in America. But what does it have to do with us? We’re not the ones getting cremated, chas v’shalom.
THE MEIS MITZVAH
A person who has no one to bury him is called a meis mitzvah. The word “meis” is self-explanatory, it refers to the deceased. But what’s the “mitzvah”?
The mitzvah is burial itself.
Burial is not merely a Jewish “tradition.” The mitzvah of burying the dead comprises two of the 613 mitzvos: a positive commandment of burying a body, and a negative commandment of not leaving a body unburied. What’s the difference? If a person transgresses a positive commandment, they have lost an opportunity to do Hashem’s will. But if they transgress a negative commandment, they have actually done something against Hashem’s will.
A dead person, however, is unable to bury themselves. So whose mitzvah is it?
Even though the family usually takes care of burial, Torah says the mitzvah of burial is incumbent on every member of the community. In today’s global village, that means it belongs to each of us. A “meis mitzvah” is a person that we have a mitzvah to bury.
IS BURIAL REALLY SO IMPORTANT?
After all, the soul is what’s important. The soul leaves the body upon death, and a body without a soul is just an empty wrapper. It’s not needed anymore, so why can’t you just dispose of it?
The body is also holy. First of all, it was the vessel for the soul, allowing the soul to function in the world.
In addition, Bereishis 1:26-27 tells us that the body was created “b’tzelem Elokim,”— in the image of Hashem. And we don’t disgrace G-d’s image by just throwing it away. We bury it. Similarly, we bury objects that contain Hashem’s name, such as Torah scrolls.
Moreover, because the body was created from the earth, we return it to the earth. Hashem actually explains this to Adam: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return,” in Bereishis 3:19.
It is no coincidence that burial first comes up when Hashem is telling Adam about the consequences of Chet Eitz Hadaas. Burial is part of Adam’s atonement for this sin, just burial is part of the atonement process for all of us, who are Adam’s descendents. In fact, burial plays an important role in three fundamental principles of our faith: Reward and Punishment, the Afterlife, and the Resurrection of the Dead.
By the way, the soul doesn’t entirely leave upon death. And it matters to the soul how its longtime partner, the body, is treated.
Because burial is so important, the act of burying someone, along with all its attendant details and rituals, is called a chesed, a kindness. Torah further qualifies this chesed by calling it chesed shel emes, a “true” kindness, because the deceased cannot reciprocate the favor done for them.
WHY IS CREMATION SO BAD?
As we’ve seen, there are specific Torah reasons to bury something. There is also a specific Torah reason to burn something.
Burning is the action we take when our intention is to eradicate something completely.
We burn an Ir Hanidachas, a Jewish city so completely filled with idolatry that there is nothing G-dly left in it, not even a single mezuzah. We burn it to the ground, and are even forbidden to build on its site, because we want to wipe it off the face of the earth. More familiarly, we burn our chametz before Pesach, because we do not want a single speck of it to remain in our possession over the holiday.
Unfortunately, most of the broader Jewish community is not aware of the Torah views of burial and burning.
These Jewish values have been replaced with faith in the modern — and incorrect — notion that cremation is somehow superior. Misconceptions about cremation include the belief that it is more environmentally responsible, and even more spiritual.
In fact, the cremation process has significant environmental impact, as Reuters reports.
And the metaphysical benefit of cremation? That is actually a pagan belief. No monotheistic religion advocates cremation.
Today, nearly 50% of Jews are cremated, and the numbers are still rising. And while the term “Jewish cremation” is an oxymoron, it appears prominently in ads for Jewish funeral homes across North America, particularly in Florida and on the West Coast.
THE LAST KINDNESS
We are all aware of the importance of sharing Torah life with non-observant Jews, and the global baal teshuva phenomenon is a testament to the success we’ve had in doing so.
Sharing the Torah view of burial would seem to be much easier and even more effective. A simple, one-time decision — to be buried and not cremated — requires far less commitment than revamping an entire lifestyle, and brings eternal benefit. Helping someone make that decision is not only “true kindness,” it is also the last kindness we can do for them, and so it is important that we make that effort.
Yet there has never been a systematic attempt to promote burial over cremation. Until now, efforts to stem the tide of cremation have primarily been conducted on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis, usually under tremendous pressure, and almost always when the person is on their deathbed or has already died. Discussed at such times, the conversation is difficult, emotional and usually unsuccessful.
Frankly, it’s not hard to imagine why these conversations are put off until the last possible moment. How do you broach such a delicate subject when a person is sick? And why would you broach it if they are not sick? Who wants to talk about death at all, whether it is imminent or not?
But the time has come to put discomfort aside. The enormity of the cremation problem today demands an organized, proactive approach.
Last Kindness, NASCK’s newest initiative, begins with raising awareness of the importance of burial across the spectrum of Jewry by means of two websites, each geared to a different audience. The endcremation.org website brings the crisis of cremation to the attention of the Orthodox community, which does not even realize that cremation is even a problem. The lastkindness.org website reaches out to the broader Jewish community about why cremation should not be a default choice.
The program also offers advice and support in opening delicate conversations about death and the afterlife with Jews who may be considering cremation, as well as professional training for people involved in outreach.
Finally, Last Kindness helps overcome financial and other logistical barriers that prevent an unaffiliated Jew from receiving traditional Jewish burial.
Helping every Jew choose and receive burial is not only an obligation on each of us, it is an opportunity for us to provide the ultimate chesed shel emes, a way to end someone’s presence on earth not with obliteration, but with blessing.
I want to help another Jew choose burial.
Conversation Starter Guide
A step-by-step guide to having a meaningful conversation about burial.
Last Kindness - Responding to the Cremation Tragedy24:44
Cremation or Burial? A Jewish Perspectivel56:25
RABBI DORON KORNBLUTH
Putting Cremation on the Front Burnerl44:36
RABBI ELCHONON ZOHN and MRS. YAEL DAVIDOWITZ
What the Orthodox community needs to know about cremation
Pulling Back The Shrouds: The Beauty and Wisdom of Jewish After-Life Carel44:13
MRS. YAEL DAVIDOWITZ
The meaning of Jewish burial practices, presented to Jews across the spectrum of observance
Rabbi Zohn is the director of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens and the founder and president of NASCK, the National Association of Chevra Kadisha
NASCK is the only organization to address cremation on a national level, and maintains the following websites, each tailored to a different audience.
An uncle, a grandfather, a sister, a father. A Jew choosing cremation, a family in anguish.
from Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2 174:3
Prolonging the life of a goses who is pain
Mishneh Halachos 10:203
Is it permitted to conduct a funeral for cremated ashes?
Rav Yaakov Yechiel Weinberg, ztz"l Seridei Eish, Vol. 2, 98
Is it permitted to bury cremated ashes?
Seridei Eish Vol 2, 94:608
May a tahara be performed for someone who will then be cremated?
How much effort should a person exert in order to prevent the cremation?