The Sanctity of the Body

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 21, 2017 / 27 Tammuz 5777

Summary: Rabbi Kosak discusses why Judaism has normally frowned upon cremation, outlines some of the ecological problems with cremation, and presents alternative burial options that are ecological and also Jewishly permitted. Additionally, he includes a link to the recent Conservative movement legal opinion on these issues.

Alternative Burial Options and the Sanctity of the Body

In recent years, we have seen an increase in Jews who choose cremation for their deceased relatives or themselves. Some choose this for economic reasons (our community provides dignified burial for the indigent). There are people who are concerned about land use and worry that over the next two centuries, cemeteries will not be sustainable. We are also a more mobile society and people reason, “why should I bury Mama when no one will visit her grave?”

The most noble reason for cremation that I know of stems from a deep humility. My father chose to be cremated because he didn’t want to take up space and impose on the world. Despite the important social contributions he made, his sense of humility was so complete that it extended to the grave.

In my final discussion with him, I expressed my  preference that he be buried. He said, “if it’s so important to you, I am ok with being buried. After all, I’ll be dead.” Unfortunately, that conversation was private. The rest of the family wanted to act on his previously stated wishes. The reality of their mourning and their desire to honor his wishes was as real to them as my concerns were to me. It seemed proper to me to allow them to fulfill what they understood his desires to be.

His ashes remain in my mother’s home.

Finally, others imagine that cremation is a more environmentally friendly option.

Despite researching this last point, I have never been able to come up with convincing data that indicates cremation is in reality a better ecological choice. In countries where cremation is more common, like Japan and India, it is a significant source of pollution, releasing mercury and other toxins into the atmosphere. And of course it requires the burning of natural gas.

We also understand that the increase of pavement and other impermeable surfaces poses its own environmental risks. Cemeteries remain preserves of green space. They do not interrupt or corrupt the water cycle in the same manner that roads and buildings do. In an era of mass extinctions and habitat encroachment, they serve as homes not only for our deceased but for many small animals. I’ve seen deer, rabbits and owls at the Ahavai Shalom cemetery.

Historically, our movement’s primary rulings (yes, there are more than one) have declared that a rabbi who is informed of a person’s intention to be cremated before the cremation occurs should not perform the funeral. If a rabbi only learns about the cremation after the fact, they can choose to perform the funeral. The assumption here is that the family acted as it did from an ignorance of Judaism’s deep reasons for bodily burial. Additionally, even in those rare communities where cremation was practiced, the remains were normally still buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Whatever the reasons for the increase in cremation that we are seeing, I am personally bothered by the trend, just as I was bothered by my father’s cremation. It is against long-standing Jewish respect for the body and our religion’s fundamental understanding that our bodies are not ours, but are on loan to us.

Cemeteries are also preserves of memory. A high school teacher once remarked that if we want to see how a society treats their living, study how they care for their dead.

In an age where history and memory have been devalued, the worth of the human being has also been devalued. The greatest culture of depersonalized cremation was of course the Nazi regime. As one contemporary conservative movement rabbi notes, perhaps “cremation is technically defensible, but to a Jew after the Shoah, I hope it is also repugnant.”

Burial is also one of our most ancient Jewish customs. When we relinquish venerable practices, even if something may be right for us individually, we endanger our people’s continuity. It is our collective decision to preserve ancient practices that perpetuates our values. Any choice on its own may be fine for an individual, but collectively can be detrimental if that practice becomes widespread.

Although our fidelity to our values is essential, we also know that Judaism has many values. As times change, history has demonstrated how we have adapted and  emphasized some values more than others. There is no doubt that ecological concerns and protecting God’s world are essential. If our planet is to continue supporting 7.5 billion people (and increasing), we will increasingly need to think holistically about all of our decisions. Burial is but one.

Is there a more suitable option than cremation? One that address the sanctity of the body as expressed by our burial customs? One that is also cognizant of our environmental responsibilities? Yes, there are other options.

The Conservative movement has been remarkable because we have been willing to confront the pressing issues of the day without departing from a deep and holistic understanding of Judaism. Rather than simply saying something is forbidden, or hand-picking a Jewish value to rationalize particular behavior, our best scholars have provided a more robust and considered viewpoint. By doing this, we often find a deeply traditional Jewish way to address social and moral issues.

Because we take this more considered approach, we may not always be the first to address pressing concerns.  But we usually arrive at the table relatively early bearing a wealth of Jewish scholarship and history with us. We also avoid the errors that occur when change is too sudden. The benefit of this measured but responsible approach should not be understated. It actually ought to be celebrated.

Into this discussion of burial, dignity and memory comes a new teshuvah, or legal opinion, written by my colleague, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmonofsky. For those who wish to read it in its entirety, the link is here.

He ably outlines the history of Jewish burial customs from ancient times to modernity. He also provides thinking on new methods that are not yet widespread and that most of us have not heard about, such as alkaline hydrolysis, promession, “Capsula Mundi” and human composting. In addition to this survey of both ancient and modern burial approaches, his goal is to urge all of us to think about the ecological impact of our final decisions.

As a community, Neveh Shalom can take pride that our cemetery guidelines do permit a green burial option in which no coffin is used. This has the twin benefits of demonstrating respect for the deceased and for the earth to which our loved ones, and ultimately all of us, will eventually return.

May we be blessed with a long and healthy life,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you and your loved ones have an advanced medical directive? Do your loved ones know your end of life wishes?
  2. Have you discussed your burial wishes? Rather than being a morbid topic, it can actually be a way to share your deep values and hopes with those closest to you.
  3. What do you think about Judaism’s attitudes to respecting the deceased? Do you think that some forms of treating a person’s remains are more respectful than others? Why or why not?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.