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Whats' Wrong With Cremation?
By Aaron Moss


My grandmother recently announced that she intends to be cremated. This disturbed me, as I know Judaism doesn't allow cremations. She grew up in communist Russia and doesn't believe in anything spiritual. She says there's no difference between burial and cremation, the result is the same. What should I tell her?


I recently spoke to someone who attended a friend's cremation. I was struck by her reaction to the funeral. She said that the atmosphere could only be described as awkward. Here was a group of people coming to pay their respects to a loved one. At the front of the room stood an urn. Try as she might, she was unable to make the association between her friend and the urn. There was no sense that honour was being paid to the departed - her presence was no longer felt.

Being cremated is unfair to the mourners. They cannot be expected to say farewell to an urn. They have no gravesite to visit. The soul has no resting place in this world. If your grandmother is willing to forgo the spiritual benefits that a Jewish burial gives her, at least she should consider the comfort a Jewish burial will give her family.

And as for the claim that the result will be the same whether she is buried or cremated, it is not true.

When cremated, the body becomes ash. When buried, the body returns to dust, and becomes one with the soil. There is a big difference between the two. Soil is fertile, ash is not. The soil allows new growth and further life. Ash is barren and lifeless.

Turning the body to ash is unnatural. But the gradual process of returning to the soil is true to the inner meaning of death. The passing of one generation allows the sprouting of another, and the living are nourished and inspired by the legacy of the dead. Our forebears are the soil from which we sprout. Even in their death, they are a source of life.

I have never met a family who regretted giving their loved one a proper Jewish burial. But I have seen the regret and pain caused by a misinformed decision to cremate. Think long and hard before making such an irreversible choice.   Your grandmother is a special lady. May she see many more years of good health, and may she always be treated with the dignity that she deserves. 


Louisa differed:

I have to disagree with you. My father was a traditional Jew, very knowledgeable and most of all a "mench". I was born after the 2nd world war and I grew up in a communist country. My family tried year after year to emigrate to Israel. They were not allowed. My father died from a heart attack when he was 60 years old. I decided to cremate him. It was the only way that his dream to be in the "Holy Land" could become a reality. "Ash is barren and lifeless". It is your interpretation. My father inspired us and our children. He used to say you have to be good and to learn because nobody can take from you what you have in your soul and in your brain.

Natalie concurred:

Hi Rabbi - I agree. Over the past few years of working at the Montefiore Retirement Home I have been to many funerals (burials and cremations)... I notice and feel the difference in the air between the two. It is sad yet peaceful at the burials, and at the cremation their is a strange feeling of closed off-ness and distance. Its a tough one when the older generation make that decision as sometimes they feel that they have lost their independence  - and that's the only thing they can hold on to!

Norman was moved:

I had intended to be cremated and actually have my ashes spread over a golf course

After reading your email, I have changed my mind

Thank you.

Edith was calmed:

I can vouch for this. I had the same dilemma and am very happy that I buried my late mother.

You have just given me a tremendous sense of calm knowing I have done the right thing by her spiritually.

Kathy argued:

I was just wondering how many cremations you have attended, as the many I have been to, the body is in a coffin at the front of the congregation and then right at the end of the ceremony it is lowered to be cremated. The urn does not appear at all. Only days later if the family requests the ashes.  

But Pam countered:

Thanks for having the wisdom and courage to voice the reality for many mourners who have the same experience as the urn "funeral".  My best friend was privately cremated, as was my niece.

The thanksgiving services for family and friends was as described.  Uncomfortable and awkward events. The body of our loved was not present. We had not shared as a community in farewelling them with dignity and love. There was no sense of closure.  

My sisters want to be cremated. They are very practical, saying there is not enough space in the world for all the bodies to be buried.  It sounds like it makes sense, doesn't it.  After reading your piece today there must be enough space made for something so important.

John asked:

If the soil is fertile, why don't we grow trees above the graves? It makes no difference if it is fertile or not because we don't make use of that fertility. In my opinion, cremation is as natural as any other form of burial, maybe even more so in our society's case because our graveyards lie barren and lifeless. Maybe we should be buried at sea, or mulched and used as compost?

Rabbi Moss responded:

I think you may have taken me a little too literally. I was using the imagery of soil and ash as symbols of new life (soil) compared to the finality of death (ash). I was not suggesting a practical way to fertilise our gardens.

Do not underestimate the power of symbolism. The ceremonies we perform at life-cycle events express our attitude to that event. Jewish burial expresses our belief in life beyond death, cremation does not.

But even more than that, Jewish burial expresses our respect for the body. While the soul is indeed very holy, the body can achieve what the soul alone could never do. Through doing acts of goodness and living a life of morality in and with the body, we fulfil G-d's ultimate purpose in creation - to make this physical world a holy place to live. It is the body that gives and cares and shares and loves, does mitzvos and performs kindness. Without a body, a soul cannot complete its mission, to turn a material world into a spiritual haven.

During our lifetime, the body is the vehicle through which we bring goodness to the world. In death, the body deserves to be treated with reverence.

May we only have happy life-cycle events to discuss....

Posted on February 2, 2007
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