Religion plays an essential role in deciding how to say the final farewell to a loved one. In Judaism, Jewish law dictates the way you conduct a funeral, mourn, the entombment process, and final prayers, among other important elements of traditional Jewish funerals.
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Considering the rise in popularity of cremation during the last several years, you may consider this option due to economic circumstances or to fulfill the last wishes of a loved one. But it’s important to know whether conducting a Jewish cremation would violate your or a loved one’s religion. In this article, we touch upon this issue and discuss the types of burials generally accepted in Judaism.
Is Cremation Forbidden in Judaism?
Generally, cremation is forbidden according to Jewish law. The Jewish law, also known as Halakha, is based upon the following components:
- Written Torah
- Oral Torah
- Biblical commandments
- Rabbinic connotations
Honoring Jewish beliefs means ruling out options like sea burials, humanist burials, or the practice of cremation, written in the Torahs and rabbinic writings.
Rabbis work to understand and honor the Biblical scriptures. It’s common within Jewish communities to post public questions for rabbis to analyze and find the appropriate answers. Whether a Jewish man or woman can be cremated according to Jewish law is one such question put to the rabbis.
As a general rule, rabbis agree that cremation by choice is not permitted under Jewish law. They also recognize, however, that there are times when cremations occur due to unforeseen circumstances.
For example, in some countries, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the cremation of many people against their wills. We also know that countless Jewish lives were cremated during the dark times of the Holocaust. Under these circumstances, rabbis agree that the Jewish law doesn't apply.
Aside from unique exemptions, Jewish law is considered binding and strongly forbids cremating in accordance with the following reasons:
The destruction of the body is forbidden
The Biblical scriptures and the Talmud (compilations of rabbinic writings) clearly explain that the destruction of the body is forbidden, particularly by burning.
- According to rabbis, physical bodies must be protected since they belong to God. Deuteronomy 14:2 states, “The Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.” From this verse, rabbis have concluded that people’s physical bodies are possessions of God and must be well-kept and protected. Since our bodies belong to God, rabbis have determined that we are not allowed to damage them. When the last wish of a loved one is to be cremated, rabbis suggest that people should put God's will before all.
- The oral Torah and Biblical scriptures contain arguments that go into further detail about the importance of protecting our bodies. These scriptures categorize autopsies and tattoos as disgraceful and clearly forbid them unless they somehow save a life. These verses also explain that cutting, marking, and damaging the body isn't allowed. Rabbis agree that cremation equals the destruction of the body, which is the same as destroying and damaging God’s possessions. This is strictly against Jewish law.
- The Talmud describes how death by fire was utilized as punishment for criminals. The Talmud’s compilation of stories demonstrates that death by fire is considered dishonoring. For instance, King Yoshiyahu burned the bones of pagan priests to disrespect their lives and memories. In addition, the Talmud clearly states that anything that requires burial must not be burned and that a body must be buried in its entirety, not partially. These specific instructions are part of the backbone as to why cremation is forbidden in Judaism.
The Torah states that bodies must be buried
The books of Deuteronomy and Genesis in the Torah directly touch upon the ordinance to bury. In Genesis 3:19, the statement of "for you are dust and to dust you will return" is a key reason why many Jewish communities choose to bury their loved ones in the ground no matter the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
You can find this verse in Deuteronomy 21:23: “Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” According to the rabbis, this verse clearly states that the deceased must be buried. Not only that, it also emphasizes that burial should be done as quickly as possible.
Although it's not legally forbidden by state laws, people who wish to bury cremains in a Jewish cemetery may encounter complications since this practice goes directly against Jewish law.
To be on the path of resurrection
Resurrection is a fundamental element of the Jewish faith. In the rabbinic writings of Maimonides, resurrection is considered one of the key 13 principles of Judaism. In other words, it's part of essential Jewish beliefs.
According to Mishnah from the Oral Torah, those who don’t believe in resurrection will not take part in it and in the coming world. Rabbis agree that cremation is the exact opposite of resurrection and those who participate in it reject one of the most important tenets of Judaism.
Those who choose cremation while fully aware of the full scope of Jewish law will not be resurrected to take part in the coming world. As mentioned before, rabbis have clearly expressed that this doesn’t apply to people who were cremated unwillingly.
Exclusion from Jewish funeral traditions
Opting to cremate a body may result in various exclusions. Although the law protects the rights of people to be buried, private Jewish cemeteries may deny the burial of ashes. On top of that, rabbis may not be allowed to officiate at the interment.
With direct cremation, the entire procedure of a traditional Jewish funeral can’t be performed. Under these circumstances, only a Kaddish prayer is recited, and the mourning, known as the Shiva, is completely discarded.
Jewish movements have developed varying viewpoints with regard to burial traditions and cremation over the past few decades. The most prominent examples belong to the Orthodox and Reform movements. The Orthodox movement encourages followers to strictly comply with the scriptures, whereas the Jewish Reform movement views burial in a more flexible light and permits the burial of ashes.
Tip: If a member of the Jewish faith is cremated, their family might choose to keep their ashes at home rather than bury them. Instead of keeping the ashes in an urn, they can create a cremation diamond with Eterneva or even transform the remains into cremation stones with Parting Stone.
What Types of Burials Are Accepted in Judaism?
Different Jewish movements have varying viewpoints regarding burials. Generally speaking, Jewish burials are divided into three categories:
In-ground burials are the most common among Jewish communities. Some of the arguments for in-ground burials originate from Genesis 3:19: "You will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." This has been interpreted as a prohibition on any type of burial that doesn't return the body to the earth. In addition, some rabbis state that an in-ground burial helps ease the soul.
Some exemptions are allowed depending on the type of Jewish beliefs. The Orthodox movement is strict and inflexible regarding in-ground burials. On the other hand, Reformed Judaism may permit mausoleums that comply with some prerequisites.
For a more traditional yet reformed Jewish cemetery, a mausoleum is permitted as long as the deceased is buried in-ground. Even in this circumstance, the bottom-line condition is that the body, in any form, is buried underneath the ground.
For those who follow a more liberal reformed Judaism, above-ground crypts and mausoleums are permitted and becoming more widely accepted.
Mausoleums have existed for more than 3,500 years and this option is considered acceptable by many Jewish communities. This acceptance is based on Sarah's burial. In Genesis 23, Abraham acquired the Cave of Machpelah to entomb Sarah, his wife. In this sense, many reformed Jewish people argue that entombing in mausoleums is part of the true Jewish tradition.
There are numerous options provided when entombing a loved one in a mausoleum. While some families prefer private mausoleums, others choose the more affordable public mausoleum option.
A natural burial is considered an environmentally friendly option. Standard burials utilize caskets with metallic components that pollute the soil whereas natural burials do not.
Jewish burials are already considered “green” since embalming doesn't take place. However, other elements utilized for the funeral process or in the casket may contain toxins and carcinogens.
The Jewish faith maintains that one should return to the earth as naturally as possible. A natural burial implies that caskets are made entirely of wood. The focus is to make the casket as biodegradable as possible and help the body to reach the earth as soon as possible, in accordance with the Jewish law.
To be able to follow the appropriate burial process, each Jewish person needs to be informed about their community standpoint in matters such as Jewish cremation and burials.
Jewish Cremations Are Forbidden
In general, Jewish law forbids cremation under all circumstances. However, this doesn't extend to people who were cremated unwillingly or to people unaware of the Jewish beliefs.
It’s a complex topic, so consult with a rabbi to help you make important decisions regarding yours or a loved one’s final wishes.
- LaMotte, S. “Cremation is Replacing Traditional Burials, But Why?” CNN Health, CNN, January 23, 2020. edition.cnn.com/2020/01/22/health/cremation-trends-wellness/index.html
- Silberberg, N. “Why Does Judaism Forbid Cremation?” Jewish Practice, Chabad, April 26, 2007. www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/510874/jewish/Why-Does-Judaism-Forbid-Cremation.htm#footnote14a510874