O the Chimneys!

Although Jewish burial customs have changed over the centuries, they have always been based on two basic concepts that may at first seem contradictory.

Photo of Nelly Sachs, 1966. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/NOBEL FOUNDATION)
Photo of Nelly Sachs, 1966.
The subject of whether or not cremation is an appropriate Jewish practice for the disposal of bodies has seldom come up for public discussion recently. Living in Israel, I have not had occasion to deal with it. Although some things have disturbed me about funerals in Israel, especially the stranger kabbalistic practices of some of the Jerusalem Hevra Kaddisha groups and the way women are discouraged from reciting kaddish and otherwise participating, I have simply accepted our burial customs as appropriate without giving them much thought.
I was therefore somewhat taken aback recently when I came upon an article called “The Burning Issue” that occupied an entire page in the Hebrew daily newspaper, Haaretz. The occasion for the article was the opening of a second crematorium in Israel. I had not even remembered that one existed. It described how that one had been operating without any competition for several years, but now another company had been formed as competition. In both cases, unlike the usual burial societies and cemeteries that are non-profit or governmental groups, these are private, commercial, money making operations not based on some ideology but on profit. The writer described the violent opposition to cremation that the first company had encountered, including an attempt by an ultra-Orthodox group to burn it down.  Indeed throughout the entire piece the writer used the term “ultra-Orthodox” whenever referring to those who disapproved of the practice of cremation, giving the impression that only ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish groups had a problem with this practice. In other words, disapproval of cremation makes one automatically an ultra-Orthodox fanatic of some sort.  Since I am definitely one of those who feels strongly that cremation is not an appropriate practice within Judaism, I resent that implication. Certainly Orthodox leaders – modern and not so modern – also oppose it, nor is it accepted as normative within Conservative/Masorti circles. My feeling is that most Jews find cremation off-putting and unacceptable. But since the subject has come up, it is worth discussing traditional Jewish burial practice and what lies behind it.
Although Jewish burial customs have changed over the centuries, they have always been based on two basic concepts that may at first seem contradictory: first, that human beings are created in the image of God, as stated in Genesis 1:27 “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Secondly, that the human body comes from the earth and must return to it. Adam is called that because he was formed from the earth – “the Lord God formed man – adam – from the dust of the earth – adamah” (Genesis 2:7). Thus "until you return to the ground – adamah –  for from it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19). The first concept indicates that the human body is the image of the Divine and must be treated with respect. The second,  that the physical form of the human body stems from the earth and, in the end, should return to it. The first exalts the value of the body, the second puts it I perspective as nothing but dust. Put together, however, these two Biblical concepts have led to the conclusion that the body after death is not to be artificially preserved since it should return to its origins in the earth, nor is it to be destroyed since it is an image of the Divine. Thus we are not permitted either to artificially preserve the body or to physically destroy it. Everything else in Jewish burial practice springs from that conjunction.
In early First Temple times these two concepts were actualized when bodies were put in caves and allowed to deteriorate naturally after which their remaining bones were placed into ossuaries. In later times bodies were placed in stone sarcophagi underground  – as in the  Bet Shearim caves – or – as in Rome – in catacombs. Later they were simply placed in the ground, as is the current practice. Even if a coffin is used – as it is in most communities outside of Israel – that is still considered to be in the ground since metal caskets are not used.
It is possible that at one time the idea of “the image of God” was taken literally. This seems to be indicated in the story of the Sage Hillel (first century BCE). When he left a group of his disciples, they asked where he was going. He replied “To perform a mitzvah.” “What is that?” “To take a bath,” he replied and explained, “If the images of the emperor must be kept clean in theaters and circuses, how much more is it one’s duty to care for the body since humans are created in the image of the Divine” (Lev. Rabbah 34:3). Even if not taken literally, the idea remains that the human body is sacred and represents the Divine.  From this comes the idea of the sacredness of human life expressed in the command “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did God make man” (Genesis 9:6).
Some religions draw a major dichotomy between the body and the soul, dismissing the body as bestial and the soul as heavenly. Judaism has not done that. We are our bodies. There is nothing inherently sinful or impure about them. The body – the image of God – is to be treated with respect – after death as well as before. It is not incidental that Judaism speaks of the resurrection of the dead in terms of body as well as life or soul. True or not, it indicates a respect for the body. It is for that reason that after death the body is not to be destroyed but to be allowed to return to the earth in a natural way. Egyptian religion took the opposite approach, creating a cult of the dead and making every attempt to preserve the body – at least those of the upper class. Thus in Egypt bodies were mummified and preserved as part of the cult of the dead. Judaism rejected that but did not go to the other extreme of treating the body as unimportant.
It is no wonder, then, that just as embalming is not permitted by Jewish Law, so cremation is not permitted. To destroy the image of God, the handiwork of God, the wondrous vessel that has contained our life for whatever years we were granted, is an act of desecration.
The one instance in the Torah in which it seems that the body was burned was as capital punishment for certain forbidden sexual behaviors. This is mentioned specifically in regard to the daughter of a priest (Lev.21:9) and of a man marrying a woman and her mother (Lev. 20:14). This is also mentioned in patriarchal times in the story of Judah and Tamar where he threatens her with death by fire when he learns that she had become pregnant while awaiting levirate marriage (Gen. 38:24). Assuming that this is to be taken literally as the practice in ancient times, this would contradict the usual prohibition against destroying human bodies and was confined to extreme cases involving sexual misconduct. It is difficult to understand why this desecration of the body was ever considered appropriate, but perhaps it was because in these cases it is the body itself that causes the sin and that then becomes contaminated by it and therefore warrants being destroyed. The crime itself dictates the punishment. Whatever the reason, this cannot be seen as a precedent for burning bodies as a normative practice. Furthermore it is important to note that although execution by fire is one of the four methods of execution decreed by rabbinic law, the Sages do not describe it as actually burning the body, but as forcing the condemned to open his/her mouth and have a lighted wick descend so that the bowels were burnt. See Sanhedrin 7:1-2. It may indeed be that the Sages interpreted it thus because they could not believe that the Torah would actually prescribe destroying the body made in the image of God.
Cremation is the ultimate act of purposeful destruction. This has been so for thousands of years and if it was always abhorrent, it has become doubly so in modern times when the bodies of so many millions of our brothers and sisters, young and old, were cast by the Nazis into ovens and went up in smoke – “O the chimneys!”  As Nelly Sachs wrote –
O the chimneys
on the carefully planned dwellings of death
When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke
through the air –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air.
In Poland a few years ago, I stood by a monumental mount of human ashes and trembled at the sight. At that moment I felt what evil really is and how human beings can be treated as if they are totally worthless. I am afraid that cremation – however well intentioned – can never be separated from that association in my mind. If before the Shoah cremation was seen as the violation of Judaism’s basic beliefs concerning the sacredness of human life and the worth of the human body, after the Shoah it is even more so, becoming also a symbol of the suffering and the cruel treatment of millions of Jews at the hands of those for whom Jews were of no more value than smoke and ashes.
Judaism teaches us to approach the dead with dignity, to treat the human body with respect at all times, even after death. We are but earth and dust, but we are also created in the image of God. This has been Jewish belief and practice for all the years of our history. This is not the time to abandon that way of conduct and to adopt practices that are totally foreign to our traditions and our values.