Three Ladies, Three Lattes: Better to be buried than to burn

Pam Peled, Danit Shemesh and Tzippi Sha-ked look at percolating issues in Israel’s complicated social and religious fabric.

Cemetery (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
I have been a ba’alat teshuva (returnee to observance) for 25 years. I come from a very progressive family, highly educated, who take tremendous pride in their atheism, claiming that religion is for the weak of heart. My family members are mostly doctors and professors.
My uncle suddenly died this week and had asked to be cremated, claiming that burial is primitive and brutal. I am devastated; my family has basically cut themselves off from our tradition, and we have not been in touch for years due to this rift. Now I’ve been invited to this “farewell ceremony.” I have children of my own and have always tried to keep them safe from my family’s incredibly twisted take of things. But the monster keeps rearing its ugly head. What would you do if you were me?
– Unhappy in Grief
Tzippi Sha-ked:
  Observation: It’s amazing how the word “progressive” is often linked to abandoning principles of faith. What’s the deal with Judaism’s opposition to cremation? It stems from the notion that we’re created “in the image of God” and must return our body in an undisturbed manner back to the earth. Since the body is viewed as the soul’s temporary custodian, a holy vessel in its own right, it’s accorded honor upon its demise. A proper Jewish burial shows gratitude to God for the gift of the noble casing, even when it’s rendered unusable.
Judaism’s aversion to burning flesh is often associated with pulverizing and nullification (hametz and idols) and, most recently, with Nazi treatment of Jews.
While it’s understandable that you’re appalled by your uncle’s cremation, what right or logic do we have to dictate to others their relationship with God, especially when arguing with atheists? Leave your kids at home (religious prerogative and too unsettling) and attend this farewell ceremony. Show your kin that “family is still family.” While not affirming cremation on a Jewish-halachic plane, you’re being supportive on a humanistic one. You cannot fight your cousins on cremation, but you can alienate them forever by snubbing the family farewell. Why educate by force or via a personal boycott, divestment and sanctions movement when you can teach by modeling compassion and humility? This works better than projecting religious certitude.
We in this country must learn to live together, sharing space in life, according respect and space in death. While we’re still here: l’haim (cheers to life) and ahdut (unity)!
Danit Shemesh: I would imagine that your family’s party line espouses tolerance to everybody but you and your kind. They esteem Judaism in theory, not in practice. Do they understand that, in your eyes, burning your uncle, whom you remember smiling at you and pinching your cheek, is akin to killing his soul, a fate worse than killing the body? “Brutal and primitive” he called burial, while living in his body. Today he is screaming something else entirely, but no one can hear him. The body, the one that served him well for 50 or 60 years, is not circumstantial. It brought life to this world. The arms hugged his children, the lips spoke words of wisdom, the legs carried him on travels and to achievements that made their mark. When we bury our loved ones, we deepen our understanding of how precious their life was.
The body is important but transitory; it serves a function and the function ends.
We live in expectation of reviving the dead, an abstract concept we believe unfalteringly.
Your family suffers from a bad case of grandiosity; they don’t see that there is a grander scheme than their personal perspective.
Life does not simply end; it makes way for a different state of being. To reduce the mystery of life and death to worms is to refuse the “good news.” Are those who break away from family tradition rebels or heroes? Be the hero and make a statement, to yourself and your children. Don’t go! Never!
Pam Peled: Jewish tradition holds the body sacred even after the soul departs. As descendants of Adam, we come from the ground; dust to dust we return to it, and we return intact. Ecclesiastes chronicles man’s “fight” with the earth – we conquer it by living upon it; we’re subdued when returning to its embrace. A tombstone erected upon the earth symbolizes man’s ultimate victory; a grave comforts loved ones left behind.
Yet ashes, too, can be buried, and memorials erected over which to weep. Israel is so tiny, there’s hardly place for the living.
Space-saving solutions include multilayered walls; mourners climb ladders to place stones on narrow ledges on high. Is this burial “in the ground”? Probably not, yet it’s “kosher.”
Environmentalists cite land conservation as grounds for cremation, yet this might not be ecologically sound: burning bodies entails fossil fuels and releases toxic chemicals into the air.
Jewish mysticism compares body and soul to a loving husband and wife. When one dies the other takes time to adjust.
Likewise, the soul does not abandon the body immediately after death. Confused and disoriented, it hovers close to its body until burial, sharing in the mourning.
Burning the body would anguish the soul.
Believing your lonely soul longs in vain for its home would sway your decision on depositing your remains. But belief is personal, and one’s choice of burial is surely personal, too.
Decide for yourself, but respect that others might disagree. Honoring the dead is a basic tenet of Judaism. Of course go.
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