In an on g0ing effort to talk about unwritten Jewish culture and tradition I want to spend a few moments on Funerals. This week at the PARR conference I co-led a discussion with Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary General Manager Len Lawrence on the changing customs of Jewish burial and funeral practice. It was a small workshop but we had lively discussion with rabbis across the West.
During the course of our presentation we spoke about the changing expectations of families and the changing customs in regard to Jewish burials. Jewish burials are down. Not because less Jews are dying but because people are choosing other kinds of goodbyes or none at all. With rising costs and more intermarriage Jews are not utilizing traditional in ground or crypt burials. Many more are choosing cremation which according to Jewish tradition and custom and law is not a valid options. Most Jewish mortuaries will not cremate. They will facilitate–meaning they will send the body out to another facility who does. Most Jewish cemeteries will agree to bury ashes.
There are many rabbis who will still not officiate at the funeral of someone who is cremated. There are others of us who will.
Cremation in Jewish tradition is against halacha-Jewish Law. Anything that disturbs the body of the deceased conflicts with the Messianic ideal of bodily resurrection. That is why autopsies are also discouraged and forbidden unless the state requires ones. The body is seen as the sacred vessel of the soul and nothing is to disturb that body even in death. We are taught a principal of kvod hamet-honor the dead. The body is the vehicle by which we do mitzvot and holiness in the world and this means we honor the body and the holiness it helped us achieve in the world. Other reasons given are that in the face of the Holocaust when we were forcible put in ovens-why would we choose willingly to go into them.
But many are still choosing cremation despite these traditional ideas. It costs less to be cremated and others believe that the environmental impact is less. Others believe that land usage for burial is not the ideal. While in our highly mobile society don’t believe anyone would come to visit them so why have a physical place.
Later this week-more on changing burial and funeral customs in the Jewish tradition.