Historically, Jews have generally followed religious laws that forbid cremation. As cultural, social, ecological and religious values transformed over time, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews have begun to engage in dialogues that further explore the challenges, implications and outcomes of cremation in Jewish culture.
Jewish Law and the Body
The foundation for traditional Jewish prohibitions against cremation is found in the Torah, or the five books of the Old Testament. Genesis 3:19 states, "You will return to the ground, for it was the ground from which you were taken." This has been interpreted to mean that the body itself is buried. This perception is reinforced in Deuteronomy 21:23, which states that even if the person was a terrible criminal, "You shall surely bury him." It is clear from traditional readings of Jewish scripture that the expectation of burial is asserted.
In an article on the My Jewish Learning website, Rabbi Luis Jacob explains that Orthodox rabbis are particularly opposed to the practice of cremation. Jacob explores a number of reasons for this opposition, including the notion that pagans engaged in the act, so it is an "idolatrous practice," and the idea that cremation is a practice that goes against traditional Jewish history and tradition. However, Stan Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, notes that even Orthodox Jews make exceptions to this prohibition. Kaplan goes on to explain how Russian Jews who emigrated to America brought the cremated remains of their loved ones with them. Given the tradition of cremation among Orthodox Jews in Russia, the remains were allowed to be buried in Orthodox cemeteries "after the fact."
Conservative and Reform Perspectives
Both Conservative and Reform Jews approach the practice of cremation less restrictively than their Orthodox counterparts. For Conservative Jews, the practice is allowable, but certain religious restrictions apply -- for example, a rabbi may not officiate at the cremated person's ceremony at the cemetery. Reform Jews, however, take a more open approach to the issue. As Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl notes, Reform Judaism has never expressly opposed cremation, and that a 1961 rabbinical manual has the following wording: “When the body is to be cremated, the following prayer is suggested...”.
Given the differing approaches to the question of cremation adopted by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, it is clear that there is no single answer; however, cremation is generally discouraged, if not outright forbidden. As Rabbi Arinna Moon observes in "The Burial of Cremated Remains in a Jewish Cemetery," what is most significant is the command to bury, and to deny burial is a violation of this command.
- Reform Judaism Magazine: Debatable: Is Cremation an Acceptable Practice for Reform Jews?
- JCANA Forum: Cremation: A Jewish Perspective
- AISH.com: Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View
- My Jewish Learning: Judaism on Cremation
- Mt. Sinai Synagogue and Congregation of Cheyenne, Wyoming: The Burial of Cremated Remains in a Jewish Cemetery
- Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images