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Religious View On Cremation: Judaism

Religious View On Cremation: Judaism

When it comes to the subject of death many religions view it in a different way. There are those who will refer to their own specific teachings on what happens after death, with varying views on what the afterlife might be. There are also those who will follow guidelines when it comes to funeral and memorial services, and they will point to scripture when helping the bereaved come to a decision about what to do with their loved one's body.

Traditionally, many religions favor burial over cremation. This is certainly the case for those who follow Jewish laws. However, there is leeway here. Studies have shown that cremations are growing in popularity, and all religions, including Judaism, have had to confront this fact. In such cases, church leaders have been encouraged to return to scripture to consider the implications for their particular religion.

Why Is Cremation Popular?

A cremation urn style

(Unsplash CC0)

Figures suggest cremation is on the rise, but why is this the case? Well, there are lots of reasons why a person might consider the option if it can fit in with their particular religion and world view.

Cost is one major factor, as cremation doesn't always require a grave or headstone. Keepsake urns are cheaper than caskets, and they can also be kept at home.

Cremation is also kinder to the environment, as burials require heavy doses of embalming chemicals which some consider bad for the earth.

There is also the personal touch with a cremation, as ashes can be scattered in the favorite place of the deceased. With cremation jewelry, the bereaved can also store the ashes of their loved ones, and keep them close by if they choose to wear the item in question.

Some people are against the idea of being buried too. For whatever reason, it can be an off-putting prospect, even though, once dead, they would have no knowledge of being confined in a coffin.

These are just some of the reasons why people are choosing cremation, and if your faith allows it, you might too. 

But what does this mean for Judaism? Cremation may be the popular choice for many, but can those within the Jewish faith consider the option for themselves or their loved ones? Research suggests cremation is on the rise for people within the Jewish faith, although there are those who wouldn't consider the prospect. Should you be a follower Judaism or if you are simply interested in the subject, read on to learn more about the faith, and the religious views that are held on cremation.

Does Judaism Support Cremation?

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In the Jewish tradition, cremation has often been considered taboo, so some within the faith might need to reconsider their plans after death if their church leaders deny them the option. The same applies to anybody considering what they should do with the bodies of their loved ones. However, as we shall discover later, there might be room for some flexibility. 

According to the Jewish belief system, the soul doesn't leave the body immediately after death. Followers of the faith believe a gradual separation takes place during the decay of the body in the earth, so cremation has remained forbidden. 

Their views are backed up by the religious texts they use, which deal extensively with the burial of the dead. In the Old Testament, Genesis 3:19 and Deuteronomy 21:23 supports their belief that the body should be returned to the ground. The Jerusalem Talmud 15 explicitly states that the body should be buried in its entirety, and not after it has been diminished through cremation. And the requirement to bury the dead is also laid out in a number of rabbinic sources, including the Shulchan Aruch, Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, and Sanjedrin 46b. 

As cremation of the body makes burial of the flesh impossible, it is seen as a violation of the texts that are used within Jewish laws.

Looking back in history, we also see that ancient Jews rejected cremation because it closely resembled the pagan practice of human sacrifice. At the time, this gave Israel another reason to deny the idea of cremation when it came to dealing with the bodies of the deceased. 

For these reasons, Conservative and Orthodox rabbinic authorities maintain that cremation should be prohibited. They accept the scholarly arguments against cremation and will actively discourage their church members from the practice. If family members decide on cremation, there are those rabbis that will refuse burial of the ashes within a Jewish cemetery. As the body has been defiled by cremation, they will argue that it is no longer fit for the traditional burial and mourning process. Some will cite that the family members in question have 'strayed from the ways of the community,' and will forbid them from following traditional Jewish customs after the death of their loved ones. 

Is Cremation Against The Will Of God?

Within Jewish law, it is said that the human body belongs to its creator; i.e. God! For this reason, Jews are told that they have no right to deface it in any way, as they will one day need to return their body in its entirety, in the same state that it was given to them. As their scriptures suggest man was created in God's image and likeness, some Jewish teachers will argue that a violation of the human body is also considered to be a violation of God Himself.

Consequently, there is the belief that cremation goes against the will of God. Of course, this extends to other aspects of a person's life. Self-mutilation, including piercings and tattoos, are also considered forbidden, as is the lack of proper hygiene. 

In Jewish law, it is a person's legal and moral responsibility to look after their own body, and this infers that they should not choose to have it cremated after death.

However, there is no direct ban on cremation in Biblical texts, despite the abundance of verses that support proper burial of the body. Jewish authorities have been encouraged to assess their traditions to support the request of those members of the church who want to follow cremation practices. While some will still argue cremation is against the will of God, there are those who will interpret Biblical and rabbinic texts to find a middle ground.

Can Compromises Be Found?

Image of a Torah being displayed at Trinity International University

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The laws in the Jewish community are very strict, but in recent years, there have been conflicting positions on the subject. While cremation is still discouraged amongst believers of the Jewish faith, the Reform Movement within the Jewish church no longer considers it to be sinful and completely against the will of God. 

With research and re-interpretation of religious texts, some rabbis within the movement have been able to find a reason to allow their followers the right to choose cremation. A proper burial of the remains will still take place in a Jewish cemetery, however, and the family will still need to observe the stages of mourning that are required in Jewish law. But when it comes to whether creation is legally allowed, the position of many is a lot more flexible.

Alongside the re-interpretation of religious texts, there are two reasons why cremation might be considered, despite the notion that is taboo.

One refers to the Biblical text of honoring one's mother and father. While religious teachings indicate the body shouldn't be damaged or defiled after death, there is still room for cremation when the parent has requested it from their children. Some rabbis will make it easier for families to choose cremation when their parents have asked for this over burial, so they won't have to worry about dishonoring their parents. 

When considering traditional practices, some rabbis will also point to the Holocaust. Millions of Jews were burned in gas chambers during World War 2, and this has given some scholars reason to rethink the concept of cremation. While it is still a thorny subject, they will argue that a distinction needs to be made between religious expectations and reality. After World War 2 ended, many Jews visited the extermination camps, and then gathered the ashes to bury them in Jewish cemeteries. Some rabbis in the Conservative and Reform movements have used this example when discussing a person's right to choose cremation, and so will allow for the burial of ashes in a Jewish cemetery. They will also argue that they have the right to officiate at the burial of the cremated remains.

So, there is room under Judaism for a cremation to be considered, although it depends on the rabbi in question. Those who have called for reform to Jewish laws will be open to the possibility, as they have realized that cremation is the preferred choice for many, even within the Jewish faith. However, there are those rabbis, including many within the Orthodox tradition, who will refuse the request for cremation, or who will refuse to officiate at the burial ceremony. 

What Is The Burial Plan?

Where cremation is permitted, the family in question will still need to follow the burial plan that has been prescribed within Jewish law. This will include the need to follow the five stages of mourning before the burial service. 

They must then select a container for the cremated remains. While a casket can still be chosen, as per a normal burial, there is also the option for an urn to be chosen for placement in the burial plot. The container does need to be kosher, however, which means that it must be biodegradable and that it mustn't have been produced on the Sabbath day. 

Burial services will then be observed. While many religions will allow for the ashes to be scattered on land or at sea, Jewish scholars will argue that the cremated remains should be buried within a plot in a Jewish cemetery. 

Should You Choose Cremation?

If you don't fall within any belief system, the choice is yours. Whether you're considering your own death or the death of a loved one, you can choose between burial or cremation.

Should you fall within the Jewish faith, the answer depends on your personal belief system and on the teachings of your church.

There are certainly reasons for choosing cremation. As we have discussed, if your parents want to be cremated, you might choose to follow their wishes so as not to dishonor them. If your rabbi permits this, you have the right to choose. 

There are also practical reasons for wanting to choose cremation. As we suggested earlier, there are cost-saving benefits, it is kinder to the earth, and you can store the ashes in religious keepsakes at home in memory of your loved one.

So, consider your own position.

Judaism has a long and controversial history when it comes to cremation, so we are not in a position to sway anybody on the matter. There are different schools of thought, and if you were to speak to two different rabbis, you might get differing views on the subject. 

The best thing for any follower of Judaism to do is to speak with their local rabbi. If you have any questions about cremation, and if you want a clearer understanding of the reasons why you should or why you shouldn't choose cremation within Jewish law, they should be able to direct you. Get a second opinion if you need to, or continue your own research on the subject. 

For most Jewish people, especially within the reformed sections of Judaism, the choice is likely to be a personal one. Burial is clearly the preferred choice within the church, and doctrine points to this being the case. The fact that many rabbi leaders speak out against cremation is enough to make one reconsider the option. However, in recent years, there has been a move away from traditional ways of thinking, so cremation might still be allowed for a believer. It will likely never be encouraged, but it might not be as taboo as it once was

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