To Urn or Not to Urn
Is this the Jewish nachas you wish to “urn” from your children?
The choice by many to cremate is mostly due to lack of understanding and knowledge. What happens to the soul after death makes all the difference in burial decisions. To be buried gives truth to our belief that the life of a person does not end. Life is eternal. Burial purifies the body in preparation for its ultimate return at the time of the Revival of the Dead.
According to Jewish law, if a person insists that he not be buried, we may not listen to him. The body and the soul are partners forever. The body remains the eternal vessel for the soul, to be rewarded for providing the soul with the passion and intensity in fulfilling life’s purpose.
WHY BURY AND NOT CREMATE
Many Jews are asking if cremation is an acceptable alternate to in-ground burial. Isn’t cremation simple and inexpensive? Isn’t cremation quick and the least burden on my children? Jewish educators and funeral homes serving Jews report rapid increases in Jews asking about, and asking for, cremation. Cremation after death rose in the U.S. Projections are that 50% of all deaths will end in cremation.
Jewish law and tradition is to be buried in the ground. Early in Genesis, Abraham buries Sarah. The other patriarchs and matriarchs are also buried. The words in Deuteronomy 21:23 are “You shall surely bury him”. In the Jewish tradition, the Chevra Kadisha (holy burial society) carefully and lovingly washes the body and dresses the body in tachrichim, simple white burial garments with no pockets. The Chevra Kadisha treats the body with the utmost respect. They ask for forgiveness if they have violated the person’s privacy. This beautiful and profound ritual is usually not available for those who will be cremated.
SOME GOOD REASONS NOT TO CREMATE
1) Our body doesn’t belong to us. It is given to us on loan for the duration of our life on this earth. We are charged with looking after our body, and are permitted to use it for furthering the cause of goodness in this world. Once our souls return to where they came from, we lose any rights in the body, and must return it as is. Cremation is like borrowing someone’s car and torching it instead of giving it back – not nice!
2) A central Jewish belief is that those who have passed away will be resurrected when the Messiah arrives. That means that their souls will return to their bodies and they will live again. The Jewish burial practices prepare the body for this experience. Cremation makes it difficult.
3) 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 honor was being paid to the departed – her presence was no longer felt.
4) The Kabbalah teaches that the soul of the departed remains hovering around the body at the funeral. It hears the eulogies, and sees those who have come to bid it a final farewell. After the burial, a part of the soul always remains at the gravesite. There they can be visited, and they are aware of and attentive to their visitors. 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.
By Rabbi Anchelle Perl
Chabad of Mineola, New York