Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Burning Question of Whether Judaism Can Permit Cremation

Death is not something I think about all that often. After all, Judaism is a life-affirming religion (Deuteronomy 30:19). When something such as the death of the mother of one of my Jewish friends lamentably occurs, it made me stop and think about mortality. Eventually, it got me thinking about cremation within the context of Jewish law. Traditionally speaking, Judaism has very much been anti-cremation, even in spite of the fact that neither the Torah nor the Tanach explicitly prohibit such a practice. Nevertheless, the prophet Amos (2:1) speaks of how the nation of Moab is punished for, amongst other things, cremation. The practice of burial is an a fortiori inference (קל וחומר) from Deuteronomy 21:22-23, i.e., if an executed criminal is to be buried a day after the execution, all the more so with those who do not commit capital offenses. Also, Abraham bought a plot of land for him and his wife (Genesis 23:7-9). The practice of burial was later codified into Jewish law (Yoreh De'ah 362:1), which is why cremation is prohibited in Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism prohibits cremation, too. However, if a co-religionist does not take heed to the prohibition, the Conservative rabbi can officiate the funeral before the cremation. Reform Judaism permits cremation, although the movement states a preference for burial.

Those who are pro-cremation in a Jewish context usually cite environmental concerns or issues of a burial being prohibitively expensive. I almost felt compelled to ask myself about the issues surrounding this prohibition because I felt ignorant regarding its origin. That ignorance was twofold: a) I haven't had to deal with death in a Jewish context, and b) I didn't want to think about it. That worked until very recently, which is why I had to wonder the following: is there a justification for permitting cremation, or has Jewish law been right in prohibiting it for all these years?

One of the eschatological arguments used against cremation is that after the Messianic era, there will be a resurrection of the dead. This eschatological belief is strong enough where Maimonides included it as part of his Thirteen PrinciplesAt least theoretically speaking, cremation disrupts that resurrection process, which supposedly creates problems. I have problem with using this as an argument against cremation. One is that ironically enough, Maimonides did not view the concept of resurrection literally. Maimonides viewed the soul as "pure intellect," and said intellect would "bask in His glory for all eternity." Essentially, Maimonides viewed "resurrection" to be synonymous with an eternal spiritual life (Commentary on Mishna, Sanhedrin 138; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva, Ch. 8; also see "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" [p. 148-156]). Second, if G-d is omniscient and omnipotent (well, nearly omnipotent), how could this human act frustrate G-d's will? If G-d really wanted to, couldn't He just reproduce the body? Third, Judaism is not nearly as dogmatic about the afterlife as other religions are. Even if resurrection of the dead is considered "a central belief in Orthodoxy," there is still enough reason for skepticism about what the afterlife entails, or even if there is an afterlife. As such, I don't find this eschatological belief, especially unto itself, to have merit to be a reason to prohibit cremation, which is why I would assume there is something else acting as the basis for the prohibition.

There is the idea that one should permit cremation because it is environmentally friendly. Judaism does take environmental concerns into account, so how does that work here? Let's be honest. There are environmental costs both to burial and cremation. A burial takes up land, this is true. However, Jewish practice prohibits embalming fluid (which is very toxic and causes ground and water pollution) and burial is done in a casket made of soft wood to speed up the decomposition process, both of which make for eco-conscious burials. Considering what's emitted in the air at crematoria, I have to wonder about the environmental impact of cremation. Let's say for argument's sake that cremation is better for the environment (I'm not convinced of that point, but this is for argument's sake). When looking at environmental policy, one looks at broader effects, typically on a global level. Jews make up 0.2% of the world population. Even if cremation were better for the environment, how much of a net impact do you think that would have on the environmental footprint if 0.2% of the world's population changed their approach to dealing with corpses? In the grand scheme of things, this argument is, at best, negligible.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of cremation is convenience. With a cremation, one does not have to worry about visiting the gravesite, especially if it is far away. However, what you have to worry about is where to put the remains. It is hard to find an appropriate spot to put the remains. Having remains of a loved one in your house can be downright awkward, assuming that you are not fighting with other family members about who gets to keep the remains. Even if that works out, how long will that last? There will be a point down the road in which the remains will either be ignored or neglected. Cremated ashes were never meant to be stored with families in the long-run. And if one were to scatter the ashes to avoid this headache, then future generations that desire to visit the gravesite could not do so. Even so, it almost does not matter if the gravesite is visited often because Moses never received any visitors, but he was nevertheless buried (Deuteronomy 34:6).

One also argues for convenience in terms of coping. In this day in age, we are have become accustomed to everything being instantaneous. We live in a society in which people go to fast food restaurants to get food right away and want an instant Internet connection because waiting longer than two seconds for a website to upload is too annoying. Cremation is no exception to this desire for instant gratification and satisfaction. Cremation is essentially pushing a button and moving on. The problem with applying instantaneity to this situation is that some things are not meant to be rushed, and Jewish tradition has enough insight to realize that reality. That would explain why the shiva process lasts for seven days, thirty days for loved ones who were even closer, and eleven months for parents. It takes time to grieve and process the loss of a loved one. Burial provides greater welfare to the mourner than cremation does because one goes through the motions (read: externalities) that one does not go through during a cremation process. When cremation takes place, very few, if any, individuals view the cremation because it is so violent. It is an action that lacks closure. When a burial of a loved one takes place, the ground is open, the casket goes into the ground, and something profound happens. At that moment, one recognizes that death is a natural part of life, thus helping realize our own mortality. When the coffin hits the ground, there is initial pain because the death is made real, but after that initial moment, it is easier to move on. Even after the funeral, it helps to have a proper place to visit so that the grieving process can go by more smoothly.

The other convenience argument used is the financial one, and it's a halachic argument I have used in the past. In a sizable amount of instances, cremations are cheaper. However, cremations often end up being comparable in cost because of additional costs (e.g., a viewing before the cremation [which entails renting a casket], a fancy urn, an urn burial, keeping the urn at a columbarium). Even if cremation ended up being cheaper, which is easiest to do through a direct cremation with none of the trimmings, there are some things for which price should not be an objection, and burial of a loved one is one of those things. But why should this not be treated like any other financial transaction in which money is the only factor?

The reason is to show honor for [the dignity of] the dead (כבוד המת), which is by far the most compelling reason in favor of burial. In Judaism, a human being is considered to be created in G-d's Image, and thusly should be treated with respect, even in death. If we are to dispose of inanimate objects such as tefillin, the mezuzah, and or a sefer Torah with such respect, קל וחומר, we should treat human beings all the more so with such postmortem respect. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a), it states that the Torah begins with an act of kindness and ends with an act of kindness. The act of kindness with which the Torah ends is the burial of Moses. The burial process is called חשד של אמת, literally meaning "true act of kindness," because the dead cannot [directly] return the favor, and is an act for which one does not expect any payback. Choosing to bury an individual is a manifestation of imitatio Dei, and that sentiment is shown throughout the process. There is always a person who stays with the body (שומר) from the death to the funeral to make sure nothing happens to the body. The chevra kadisha (חברא קדישא) washes the body with the utmost care, which is followed by a ritualistic washing called the taharah (טהרה), followed by the dressing of the body in simple white garments. During this time, one cannot engage in activities which the dead cannot do, e.g., eat, drink, wear tefillin, because it would be considered a mockery of the dead because, amongst other reasons, the dead cannot perform mitzvahs. Even the expediency with which the body is buried (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), i.e., usually within 24 hours of the death, shows respect for the deceased because exposure of the body for that long leads to putrefaction, which disdains [the memory of] the deceased.

All of this ceremony reinforces the Jewish idea that the body is the receptacle of the soul. Unlike other world religions, Jewish thought does not view the body at odds with the soul. Jewish spirituality means that the body works in conjunction with the spirit, not against it. The body is the vessel through which one performs mitzvahs. As such, Judaism expects us to express gratitude to that vessel by treating the body with care postmortem. Our actions speak louder than our words. Burial and cremation are a reflection of two different attitudes. In the former, the intrinsic elements do not change; they are given back to the ground (Genesis 3:19) and help rejuvenate the earth. Burial is a non-destructive and organic process (Talmud, Chullin 11a). Cremation represents something different. Burning something in a Jewish context, whether it is an idol (Deuteronomy 7:25) or chametz right before Passover, symbolizes abandonment and nullification. Cremation is a distorted grieving process that only results in ashes because a departed one's memory should not be abandoned or nullified.

In summation, cremation is decidedly not a Jewish practice. Cremation lacks the כבוד המת that is a part of Jewish burial. Cremation does not even provide what it advertises. When an individual is buried, it not only shows respect and dignity towards the deceased, but it also takes the mourners into account. Burial of the deceased is undoubtedly the option that is most congruent with Jewish values.

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