Are all these rituals and details really necessary? Do they still apply today when there’s other alternatives?
Does my loved one really need to be buried according to Jewish law?
What do all these rituals mean to my loved one who has passed on? Do they really care now that they’re not alive anymore?
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May our departed loved ones rest in peace, and may the memories of their lives comfort us.
Jewish practices relating to death and mourning have two purposes: to show respect for the deceased, and comfort the living who mourn and will miss the departed.
With this in mind, let’s see why Judaism requires burial - not just burial, but a natural green burial.
Man's soul comes from Above, "He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life," and when it completes its mission on earth it rises back to G‑d, returning to its source.
The body, on the other hand, was taken from the ground -- " G‑d formed man of dust from the ground" -- and must therefore return to the earth. This is expressed in the words that G‑d tells Adam, the first man, "For dust you are, and to dust you will return."
Why does Judaism prohibit cremation? What’s so significant about burial?
You may think of cremation as a modern solution for the deceased. But cremation is a big part of some ancient civilizations - the pagan ones.
Pagan religions believe the body is nothing but a lowly container for the soul. According to this doctrine, when the soul is no longer there, the body is worthless.
Yet in Judaism, we cherish and respect the body. Our bodies house and carry our souls, and are vessels which enable us to do our life’s work.
Your loved one’s body is holy and had sustained them all their life. Their soul feels gratitude and appreciation, and worries and cares for the body it left behind. Thus Judaism requires we treat it with the respect and dignity it deserves.
You may be wondering, “How is burial more dignified than cremation? Why is being eaten by worms better than being burnt to ashes?”
Let’s take a look at both.
Burial is the natural way of every organism on Earth. It is a natural process of returning to the earth and giving back to the ecosystem.
Cremation is a man-made invention. What is the model modern cremation uses? The technology used today was first developed by the Nazis, who sought to find the most demeaning and violent way of disposing the Jews’ bodies.
As Professor Stephen Prothero says:
“Think of the horrors … of the crisping, crackling, roasting, steaming, shriveling, blazing features and hands that yesterday were your soul’s delight. Think of exploding cadavers. Think of the stench of burning flesh and hair. Think of the smoke. Think of the bubbling brains. Then you will be gripped by ‘paralyzing horror’ at even the thought of ‘submitting the remains of … dear departed relatives to its sizzling process.’ Cremation [is], in a word, repulsive: ‘There is nothing beautiful in being shoved into an oven, and scientifically barbecued by a patented furnace’ ”
At the end of this process - the entire person is gone. Ashes have no identity or DNA - and thus don’t have any scientific or physical connection to your loved one. In fact, mix ups happen on a frequent basis, and people have been keeping the urns of what they thought were their loved ones - only to to get a call years later from the crematorium that they found an urn with their relative’s name on it.
In many civilizations, thieves and criminals were given cremation as a punishment - the message being, “We don’t want to have any memory of you on this world. Your body will be destroyed, your DNA annihilated - your memory will be gone forever.”
Most people do have some DNA left after being cremated - but that’s because the flames leave behind the charred remains of his/her skeletal frame. What happens then? Workers put the bones that survived the fires into a giant pulverizing machine, and whatever remains of your loved one is crushed and grinded.
At first glance, it may seem like cremation is better for the environment than burial. After all, burial takes up what seems to be a lot of land.
But is that really true?
What the multi-million dollar cremation industry doesn’t tell you is that cremation releases worryingly high levels of toxins like mercury into the atmosphere.
Cremation also uses a shocking amount of non-renewable fossil fuels, the leading factor of pollution.
Scientists and environmentalists have studied the impact of burial methods on the ecosystem and environment, and the majority are coming to the same conclusion as Jewish law.
Jewish burial is intrinsically eco-friendly. Metal caskets and embalming are harmful to the environment - and Jewish law forbids that. Jewish deceased are buried in simple biodegradable wood coffins.
For Your Family
“I don’t want my family to feel obligated to travel far to visit my grave. I don’t want to be a burden after my death.”
This is a common sentiment expressed by those who choose cremation.
Yet as people who have had family members cremated can tell you, many times cremation can inconvenience family members far more.
First, the urn.
Where to store it? Family members may initially keep remains in their home - but what happens when they relocate, downsize or pass away?
As the number of cremations in the United States rises, so does the number of abandoned urns, lying unclaimed in funeral homes or found in attics and basements.
Some people drag the urn with them wherever they go - at great inconvenience and cost to them.
Statistics show that most urns are not preserved for more than two generations.
What happens if your grandchildren or other relatives would like to visit and connect with their ancestor? With no grave, and no physical connection, many family members have come to deeply regret having their loved one cremated.
Is Judaism Against Autospies?
To protect the sanctity and dignity of the body, Judaism doesn’t permit autopsies. Under extremely extenuating circumstances, they may only be performed in a minimally invasive manner.