Ask the Rabbi: Why does Jewish law prohibit cremation?

Recognizing the divine image found in all human beings, the Torah prohibits leaving a body (or body part) unburied.

A WARRIOR’S cremation urn, 900-850 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Rhodes. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A WARRIOR’S cremation urn, 900-850 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Rhodes.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A couple of weeks ago, Rona Ramon requested for her corpse to be cremated. While this decision caused a mild public tempest, I have no interest in commenting on her specific decision. She was a noble woman who overcame a very difficult life with great dignity, and I see no great benefit in highlighting – as others have – that her psychologically understandable but ultimately mistaken decision violated Jewish norms and beliefs.
Her story, however, did return the option of cremation back to the attention of the Israeli public. Israel has allowed cremation for over a decade, despite the great protests of religious leaders and other figures who found it utterly inappropriate in the wake of Nazi crematoriums. Fortunately, it has not been a particularly popular practice in Israel, in contrast to the United States and other Western countries, where an increasing percentage of the population, including Jews, are selecting this option.
Many choose this option because it is seen as a cheaper or an easier alternative, some do it because they (mistakenly) believe it has environmental benefits, and others for philosophical reasons relating to their perspective on the nature of humanity. Indeed, it is precisely on theological grounds that the Torah bans cremation.
Recognizing the divine image found in all human beings, the Torah prohibits leaving a body (or body part) unburied and even demands interring the bodies of criminals who receive the death penalty. Several ancillary laws derive from this commandment, 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 mitzvah,” a corpse that does not have a caretaker, 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. This is because lack of burial is considered to be an affront not only to the deceased’s family but also to humanity, which is created in God’s image.
The Torah, however, also records the embalmment of Jacob and Joseph, which was necessitated both by their Egyptian environs and their desire to be ultimately buried in the Land of Israel. Contemporary scholars 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 above-ground burial crypts in which the body is not buried within the earth itself. Similarly, Jewish law opposes cryonics and all other attempts to preserve a physical body for later rejuvenation.
Humans, according to the Bible, were created from the earth, and in death we return to our source. This reminds us during our lifetime of our modest origins, while further encouraging us to utilize our time on earth to merit the eternal life in the world to come alongside the resurrection of the dead, which will be granted only through God’s grace.
It was precisely out of a rejection of these notions that many Westerners favored cremation, when new technologies developed for efficient incineration in the 1870s. In modern cremations, bodies are incinerated at four-digit temperatures for two to three hours. Bone fragments and other residue are further pulverized before they are collected and returned.
A basically unanimous consensus of 19th-century rabbinic decisors firmly banned this practice. They argued that the body’s incineration is its ultimate desecration, citing a Talmudic story that viewed the burning of King Yehoyakim’s remains as an ultimate punishment. The Jerusalem Talmud already indicates that Jews prohibited this practice in antiquity, a point that was testified to by the 1st-century Roman historian Tacitus.
It is true that a few other kings were burned after their deaths, including kings Saul and Asa. In the former case, however, this was clearly done so that his bones could be transported and buried in an appropriate place. In the latter case, it was understood to indicate a ceremonial burning of clothing and other objects, in line with many pyrrhic rites in antiquity, since once again the verses indicate that the king was ultimately buried.
In any case, these decisors understood that the irreligious motivations of many who chose cremation reflected their heretical denial of either the world to come or physical resurrection. Some even asserted that the ashes from cremated bodies were not entitled to burial within Jewish cemeteries, since it represents the ultimate rejection of Jewish beliefs that underlie traditional burial practices.
Interestingly, in some Eastern religions, cremation is utilized precisely because of their belief in the continued (and primary) existence of the soul, with the body’s destruction indicating its inconsequence.
Yet, as we’ve seen, Jewish law rejects this attitude toward the physical body. While the soul and its eternal life may have primary importance, the body is still seen as a holy vessel that allows us to manifest our inner spirit. A Torah scroll that has become blemished must still be treated with sanctity and properly interred. All the more so with the human body, which was created in God’s image and allows us to bring the divine word into the world.
It is precisely out of these beliefs in the eternity of the soul and the sanctity of the body that Jewish law has demanded interment and rejected both embalmment and cremation.
One hopes that Jews off all stripes will continue to affirm these beliefs by maintaining traditional burial practices.
The writer, a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute.