Religion & Beliefs

Against Cremation: From Dust to Dust, But Not Too Quickly

There’s an interesting article in the Washington Post about Russian rabbis crusading against cremation, which is apparently the norm in Mother Russia. I always thought cremation was kind of yucky (keeping Grandpa’s ashes on the piano just seems gross to … Read More

By / May 25, 2007

There’s an interesting article in the Washington Post about Russian rabbis crusading against cremation, which is apparently the norm in Mother Russia. I always thought cremation was kind of yucky (keeping Grandpa’s ashes on the piano just seems gross to me) but something I never considered is that cremation is way way cheaper than a traditional burial, and lots of Russian Jews are apparently hesitant to spend loads of cash on a dead person. A Chabad rabbi in Moscow says of the Russian Jewish community:

"They say, 'I'm not religious.' I say, 'We'll pay everything,' and I offer them $1,000 over the expenses. Still I can't convince some of them. They see me and they are afraid," he said, touching his yarmulke. "But for those who decide on a Jewish burial, it can be the beginning of a good connection to the community, and we start to see them on Shabbat."

That’s the very end of the article, but to me, it’s the most important part. Because the truth is, for a lot of people the entryway into Judaism comes because of a grieving ritual. Be it sitting shiva, saying kaddish, or becoming a member of a chevra kadisha, I know a lot of people who have become more observant because of a death of a loved one. And of course it makes sense. When we’re feeling most bereft, we reach out for God and a community to help us. I admire what the Chabad rabbi is doing in Russia, and I certainly agree that a Jewish burial is important, but I also think that with death we have to focus on being a community for the family, on being a support structure. I’m not sure scaring people into a Jewish burial is the best way of conveying that we as a community will be there for each other. On the other hand, halacha explicitly forbids cremation, and says that even if someone asks to be cremated on their deathbed, we have to disobey their wishes. The main halachic issue with cremation is that it counts as Nivvul HaGuf, mutilation of the body, and as we’ve already learned, it’s really important to us to treat corpses with the utmost respect. Burning them seems, for lack of a better term, incendiary. But I think the ultimate objection with cremation is that it is a lie. It’s too easy to make yourself feel like grandpa’s not really dead, he’s in an urn on the piano. It lacks the finality of putting someone back into the ground. Finally, we are told that man was created from the ground, and that he will return to the ground. The process is supposed to be gradual, and natural, neither of which can be said of cremation. I know that the debate over cremation is a pretty popular one these days, so I just wanted to give some thoughts. For a further look into halacha, check out this site.