For thousands of years, Jewish law has held that burial in the ground was the only acceptable option for the Jewish faith. And yet today, despite tradition and continued opposition from some in the Jewish community, many Jews are choosing cremation instead of – or as part of – traditional burial.
Throughout history, Judaism’s arguments against cremation have been numerous. In ancient times, cremation was a pagan burial practice. Cremation became associated with pagan religious beliefs, from which Jews were encouraged to separate themselves as much as possible.
The Talmud considers the legal question of cremation at some length in Sanhedrin 46b, and ultimately comes to the conclusion that Jewish religious obligations require burial of the dead, and that when a cremation occurs, this obligation has not been fulfilled.
More recent arguments against cremation are often given to explain many Jews’ continuing opposition to cremation: the Shoah, or Holocaust, is sometimes cited by Orthodox and Conservative Jews as yet another reason why cremation is not appropriate for Jews, even today.
Other concerns about cremation include Jewish beliefs about ownership of the body, the process of decomposition, and the soul. In Jewish law, the human body belongs to God, not to the individual. Jewish law and tradition consider cremation as destruction of property. Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, also holds that the soul does not immediately depart the body. Rather, it slowly leaves the body as it decomposes; cremation therefore is considered to cause pain, even after death.
And yet, along with the rest of society, Jews today still increasingly choose cremation over traditional burial. Although the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) does not maintain numbers on the percentage of Jews who choose cremation, Jewish funeral directors do report anecdotally to The Forward magazine that although small compared to the rest of society, the numbers of Jews choosing cremation are up across the country.
Information is spotty, and varies from city to city, but funeral directors in Philadelphia and New York stated to the Forward that the rate of people opting for Jewish burial of cremated remains are as high as 10 – 14%. One funeral director in Seattle stated that at one particular Reform congregation, the rate of cremations was as high as 15%.
One reason for the turn towards cremation is that in large urban areas, Jewish cemeteries may not be owned by a synagogue. They are privately owned entities that are in the business of serving their customer’s wishes, rather than ensuring that they abide by Jewish law.
In modern times, Reform Judaism still favors burial, but does not oppose cremation as vehemently as it once did. According to the “Ask A Rabbi” section on the ReformJudaism.org website, “Some Reform Jews have adopted the practice of cremation. While this method of handling the dead is certainly contrary to Jewish tradition, there is no clear-cut prohibition of cremation in the halachic literature.”
If a person chooses to be cremated, most Reform Jewish cemeteries today will allow their remains to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, although often they stipulate that the cremains must still be buried in a coffin.
Jews may choose cremation for a variety of reasons, including cost and travel concerns. According to Lori Adamson, Service Manager of Neptune Society’s San Antonio office, “We have seen cases where families have wished to return the body to Israel after passing. The expense of transporting the body – between removal, preparation, international flights, shipping containers and apostilles – can be exorbitant, so some families have chosen cremation as a less expensive alternative so they can fly with the urn to Israel.”
Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, however, still strongly oppose cremation. Not only do Orthodox and Conservative rabbis not allow burial of cremains in a Jewish cemetery, they frequently encourage families whose loved ones have requested to be cremated to go against those wishes, arguing that once a loved one has died and gone to the afterlife he will understand the importance of a traditional Jewish burial even if he did not understand in life.
Continued Adamson, “At Neptune, we understand the Jewish faith’s reservations about cremation and respect the decision of each family. We strongly recommend that families meet with their religious leaders if they have any doubts as to the proper decision for disposition.”
For many Jews today, the answer to the question of whether to be buried or cremated is no longer as cut and dried as it once was.
If you or a loved one is considering cremation, we at Neptune Society encourage you to consider carefully your own position on the subject, discuss your options with your religious leader, and make the choice you believe is right for you and your family. For more articles in this series, please see our religion and cremation article archive.
Special thanks to Lori Adamson, Service Manager of Neptune Society San Antonio for her support and contributions to this post.