ASK THE RABBI:Jewish cemetery

May ashes from a crematorium be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

May 30, 2013 15:53
4 minute read.
Funeral procession of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef in Jerusalem, April 12

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef funeral Jerusalem 370. (photo credit: Courtesy United Hatzala Spokesperson's Office)

Recognizing the divine image found in all human beings, the Torah prohibits leaving a body (or body part) unburied and even demands the interment of the bodies of criminals who receive the death penalty (Deuteronomy 21:23). Several ancillary laws derive from this verse, including the prohibitions of mutilating the corpse, deriving benefit from it, or delaying its burial. The Torah further demands that one take responsibility for a met mitzva, a corpse which does not have a caretaker (Deut. 21:1), even if this entails financial expense or requires a kohen (priest) to become impure. As such, even if a person desires not to be buried, Jewish law mandates ignoring that request.

They key question, however, remains what action is mandated to fill these requirements.

The long-standing practice clearly requires some form of burial, following the example given in the Bible of the interment of several biblical characters. Following this theme, one midrash contends that a grief-stricken Adam did not know what to do with the corpse of his son Abel, until he saw birds inter a dead bird and followed their lead. On many occasions, particular stress was placed on being buried within a family plot, as in the case of Abraham’s family and the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The Torah, however, also records the embalmment of Jacob and Joseph (Genesis 50), which was necessitated both by their Egyptian environs and also their desire to ultimately be buried in the Land of Israel. The normative consequence of this historical embalmment remains disputed. Some scholars have argued that embalmment might be permitted if it is done for the sake of the deceased’s honor, especially in order to preserve the body until it is interred in a family plot. Others allow for such preservation only if the method employed does not involved any incisions, as in the case of injecting preservatives or aromas via orifices or the bloodstream. Most contemporary scholars, however, generally assert that any form of embalmment constitutes a forbidden tampering with a corpse unless absolutely necessary to preserve its body for burial. This includes freeze-storage of the body and aboveground burial crypts in which the body is not buried within the earth itself.

A major debate regarding cremation in Jewish law erupted in the late 19th century following the emergence of new cremation methods. As David Malkiel has documented, a few Italian scholars argued that cremation did not violate Jewish law as long as the ashes were properly buried. (In fact, Rome chief rabbi Hayim Castiglioni was himself cremated upon his request!) In addition to the embalmment of Jacob and Joseph, these scholars cited several biblical stories in which kings were burned after their deaths, including Saul (I Samuel 31:12) and Asa (II Chronicles 21:19). They also cited a medieval responsum of Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Aderet, who permitted lime seed to be placed on a corpse to speed up its decomposition so that the bones may be transported to a faraway family plot.

A nearly unanimous consensus of scholars, however, firmly banned this practice. They argued that the body’s incineration was its ultimate desecration, citing a Talmudic story that viewed the burning of King Jehoiakim’s remains as an ultimate punishment. The medieval allowances to use lime seed represented an exception under extreme circumstances, while the Biblical stories about kings were understood as cases of aberrant punishment or alternatively interpreted as the ceremonial burning of clothing and other objects in line with many rites in antiquity. Many noted that the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts believed that even after death a person feels pain associated with their corpse, making its incineration an utterly frightening prospect. Some, moreover, argued that the anti-religious motivations of many who chose cremation reflected their heretical denial of the Messianic era or physical resurrection.

As Adam Ferziger has shown, opposition to cremation was so intense that many scholars in Germany and elsewhere, led by Rabbi Meyer Lerner of Altona, declared that cremated bodies were not entitled to burial within Jewish cemeteries. They believed such a decision was the ultimate rejection of Jewish beliefs and practice, and that, moreover, the refusal of burying these ashes was a significant deterrent to such behavior.

Several scholars, however, argued that this sin is no worse than Shabbat desecration or many other widespread transgressions and that burial should be allowed, albeit in a separate section of the cemetery. (All agreed, however, that bodies consumed by a fire receive full burial rights.) This issue reignited in 2005 when the first cremation society was formed in Israel. In addition to religious opposition, many Israelis believed that such a practice was particularly insensitive in light of the Holocaust. Indeed, this sentiment has largely reduced its popularity within Israeli circles, even as the trend of cremation continues to make alarming inroads within the global Jewish community.

The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars.

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