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Written by Rabbi Walter Rothschild   
Tuesday, 01 August 2000
Cremation has been known since earliest times, and indeed much of the tendency in Jewish tradition to oppose cremation has been on the grounds that it was so common in surrounding cultures and therefore regarded as chukkat hagoy (a non-Jewish custom). Tacitus, the Roman historian, notes that “the Jews bury rather than burn their dead” (Histories 5:5). This tradition is based on a literal understanding of Deuteronomy 21:23 which states of an executed criminal “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall surely bury him the same day”. From this the Shulchan Aruch deduces that burial in the earth is a positive command (Yoreh Dei'ah 362) and from this the many Jewish customs connected with burial are derived.

On the other hand, some authorities declare that so long as the human remains are placed in contact with the earth, the actual mode of burial is merely a matter of custom rather than law. For example, the use of a coffin is a later custom, and the coffin actually acts as a barrier between the remains and the soil. Moses Isserles, in his authoritative comments on the Shulchan Aruch (to Yoreh Dei'ah 363.2) permits the spreading of calcium over the body in the grave to hasten decomposition. This became a common practice amongst Portuguese Jews at one period. In Rome bodies were often placed in catacombs, not in the soil itself, and were allowed to dry out rather than become one with the soil. In some communities bodies would be placed in tombs until the flesh had decomposed, the bones then being gathered and placed in ossuaries or containers.

By the late 19th century the practice of cremation was becoming widespread in parts of Western Europe and America; several rabbis approved of it whilst others condemned it. In 1892, for example, the Central Conference of American Rabbis resolved not to refuse to officiate at the cremation of a departed co-religionist if invited to do so. In 1887 Rabbi N M Adler, Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, though opposed to cremation itself, permitted the ashes of a Jewish person to be interred in a Jewish cemetery, a concession subsequently discontinued.

Thus, it can be seen that there are different ways of dealing with the question of providing a dignified disposal of a human body. Cremation in its modern form is but one of these. Whilst burial in the ground remains the norm, we have no ideological conflict with the custom which is now popularly accepted by many as clean and appropriate to modern conditions.

The Body
The body is the container which holds the soul throughout life. When the soul has departed, the dead body is termed “unclean” in Jewish law which simply means that it is in the wrong place or in an incorrect state of being. A body that is alive is a person, to be treated with dignity and respect as a human being; a body that is dead is a corpse, equally to be treated with dignity and respect, but to be removed from where it does not belong. One should show kibbud hameit (respect to the dead) and most of the arguments surrounding cremation revolve around the meaning of this term.

Judaism at different stages in its development hints in various ways at the idea of life after death; from Talmudic times onwards this largely took the form, still retained by Orthodox Judaism, of a belief that at the end of days there would be a physical resurrection of the dead. This required at least some part of the body - the coccyx - to be left intact, upon which it could be reconstituted when the time comes. Reform Judaism rejects the notion of physical resurrection and, in common with many other streams in Jewish thought, considers the survival of the body after death to be independent of the condition of the body. This enables us to permit post-mortem examinations, to encourage the donation of organs for transplants and to cremate the bodies of those who have indicated this to be their wish, without detracting from the dignity and respect shown to the dead or depriving a person of his or her place “in the world to come”.

The Service
Clearly there are differences between a cremation service and a burial service in that the former takes place wholly indoors in a `chapel', whilst at a burial at least the interment is outdoors and can involve many of the mourners in physically assisting with the act of covering the coffin with earth. Apart from this, however, the liturgy at a cremation service is the same as at a burial. Dependent on the individual crematorium, the coffin may be removed by remote control at an appropriate point in the service, or just be obscured by curtains. Most crematoria are officially non-denominational but it is not uncommon to find Christian religious symbols which need removing or covering. As at a burial, mourners are discouraged from bringing or sending flowers.

The Assembly of Rabbis encourages normal shivah to be held as an aid to the mourners.

Disposal of Ashes
A grave provides a focus for grief, a place to which mourners may return in later times. The Assembly of Rabbis encourages that the ashes be either buried in a suitable plot, or put in a columbarium (a special wall in which containers can be permanently placed) or another recognisable section of the cemetery, according to what is available. Practices differ from cemetery to cemetery, each having its own rules on grave plots, markers, scattering, etc. Ashes for burial should be placed in a wooden container and an appropriate plaque, marker or tombstone erected. The cremation service is the main opportunity for taking leave of the deceased, though a stonesetting ceremony may be held later.

Some of those who express a wish to be cremated ask for their ashes to be scattered. This, of course, removes the possibility of mourners coming later to a specific spot to express their feelings, but may be appropriate to the individual. Not all cemeteries have areas for the scattering of ashes but many do. Ashes, once released to the family, are often scattered in places of deep personal significance. These are matters for the family to decide. Mourners often express a wish to be able to identify a location as the resting place of the remains of a loved one, and it is for this reason that the Assembly of Rabbis actually discourages the scattering of the ashes.

It should also be noted that decisions do not have to be rushed. Ashes can be kept by the crematorium or by the family until a decision has been reached. We would urge anyone who has particular wishes to ensure that the family and synagogue have written instructions in order to avoid confusion and upset later.

Some people find cremation distasteful; others may be concerned about the upkeep of a grave. There remains in the Jewish community an ambivalence about cremation but the Reform Movement believes that a dignified ceremony of committal, followed by cremation, with all other mourning rituals encouraged and with the ashes then being disposed of in accordance with personal feelings, is not incompatible with our attitudes to Jewish tradition. This allows for individual religious freedom and enables us to meet our responsibilities to treat both the living and the dead with care, consideration and respect.


Rabbi Walter Rothschild received his semicha from Leo Baeck College and his MA from Cambridge University. He grew up at Bradford Synagogue and served Sinai Synagogue, Leeds until 1995.

This is leaflet number 2 in the series “JUDAISM IN OUR TIME”

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 06 July 2006 )
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