Q. May the cremated ashes of a deceased person be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
A. Jewish law requires that the remains of a deceased person be reverently buried in the earth. Orthodox rabbis will therefore not officiate at, nor will a Chevra Kadisha handle arrangements for, a cremation. If a person expresses a wish to be cremated, such a wish, even by a dying person, should not be fulfilled, and the next of kin of a deceased person is personally responsible for the transgression involved in arranging a cremation.
We oppose cremation for the following reasons:
• Only by burial in the earth is the religious duty of laying a person’s remains to rest duly fulfilled.
• It is forbidden to destroy or mutilate a human body, even after death.
• Historically cremation was a pagan practice; Judaism always stressed burial in the earth.
• Cremation is regarded as denying the belief in the resurrection of the dead.
There was a stage when rabbinic authorities in Britain condoned the burial of cremated ashes. Rabbi Dr H Rabinowicz, in his A Guide to Life: Jewish Laws and Customs of Mourning, quotes a letter by Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, who held office from 1845-1890: “I beg to state that whilst there does not exist any precept prohibiting the interment in a Jewish cemetery of the ashes of a person who has already been cremated, our law is decidedly and emphatically opposed to the practice of cremation.”
Chief Rabbi Herman Adler, Nathan Marcus Adler’s son and his successor in office, stated as quoted by Rabbi Rabinowicz: “There does not exist any precept prohibiting the interment in a Jewish cemetery of the ashes of a person who has already been cremated, an opinion supported by other eminent rabbis. We accordingly permit such a burial. At the same time we earnestly beg you not to construe this permission into a sanction of the practice of cremation.”
Rabbi Rabinowicz also quotes a by-law of the Burial Society of the United Synagogue of London: “The society shall not make any arrangement whatever for cremation. Where cremation is nevertheless to take place a service may be held at the house prior to the removal of the body, and if the ashes be encoffined then interment may take place at a Cemetery of the United Synagogue and the burial service shall be conducted there at the time of the interment.”
In a letter sent to me on 13 October, 1988, the London Beth Din confirmed that the Adlers and their successors were “strongly opposed to cremation. Any concessions they have made were obviously necessitated by the particular circumstances then prevailing. Contemporary codifiers, whilst recording the London rabbis’ ruling, clearly indicate that it has not been generally accepted (cf. Grennwald, Kol Bo Al Avelut, Ch. 1, Section 3, para. 21, pages 53-4 and notes thereon).
“The London Beth Din, whenever it has been consulted by communities or individuals, has consistently followed the vast majority of the most outstanding rabbinic authorities of our times and has ruled that the mitzvah of burial (K’vurat HaMet) applied only to a human body whereas the ashes of those who renounce fundamental beliefs of our faith by choosing cremation ought not to be buried in consecrated ground.
“It follows that so as not to encourage such a serious violation of our sacred traditions, ministers and a Chevra Kadisha ought not to be involved in any way in services in connection with such a deceased.”