We are in the midst of a cremation crisis, according to the website shabbosvayechi.org: Every 16 minutes, a Jewish person is cremated.
The site attempts to change the hearts and minds of Jewish community members considering cremation rather than a traditional Jewish burial. The organization works with 630 shuls in 135 communities, including the Pittsburgh Shul (B’nai Emunoh Chabad), Congregation Poale Zedeck, Shaare Torah Congregation and Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh.
The number of Jews who opt for cremation might be surprising, but it isn’t out of line with what is happening across the United States — 57.5% of those who died in 2021 chose cremation over traditional burial options, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In Canada, nearly three-quarters of those who died were cremated.
No matter where you fall on the issue, there is no question that cremation rubs against halachah, or traditional Jewish law.
“The body is holy,” said Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, the executive director of the Aleph Institute-Northeast Region and a spiritual adviser to Gesher HaChaim, a burial society in Pittsburgh. “We sanctify it after it’s been used; we bury it.”
For Vogel, the argument can be illustrated simply: When animal hides are used to create tefillin they are elevated and can no longer be thrown away — they must be buried. How much more so for the human body that has performed hundreds of mitzvot throughout its life?
The Talmud, Vogel said, goes to great lengths to discuss the importance of burial and the responsibility of everyone to see that another person receives a proper burial, even if that person isn’t Jewish.
The rabbi is unwavering in his belief that Judaism prohibits cremation.
“It’s sacrilegious. It’s what the Germans did to us. It’s a horrifying thing,” he said, referencing the Holocaust.
Although cremation is not permitted in Judaism, Vogel stressed that those murdered by the Germans were not held to the prohibition.
Shaare Torah Rabbi Yitzi Genack agrees with Vogel that cremation should be seen in the modern context of the aftermath of the Holocaust.
“Millions of Jewish bodies were cremated. I see it as a tremendous tragedy,” he said.
The traditional Jewish view, he said, is focused on burial.
“There’s a line I say to families when we’re processing a funeral and death,” he said. “There are a lot of rituals that come up between the time of passing and burial and I say, “Nothing that we’re doing is going to be to your relative, everything we do is for them.”
Those rituals are meant to show the grandeur and greatness of the person, he said.
“The Torah says numerous times that when a person dies, the body has to be treated with respect and buried,” he said. “Throughout the generations, by the tradition, that has been magnified.”
The community should accompany a person to burial and to show the care, greatness and loss being felt.
“The body is sacred, and things that are sacred are not destroyed,” he said. “They’re laid down peacefully and gently when they are no longer in use. So, it’s not anti-cremation; it’s very pro the care and love of tender burial.”
Genack said that if a family wanted to cremate a body and have it buried in a Jewish cemetery, he would first have a conversation explaining the advantages of burial over cremation.
“In the long run, I think there are emotional advantages to having a space where the body rests and the family can visit,” he said.
If the rabbi’s attempts fail, he said, there is no wiggle room.
“Cremains can not be buried in a halachic cemetery,” he said.
Temple Sinai Rabbi Daniel Fellman said that in the Reform movement things aren’t so cut and dry.
“Cremation isn’t seen as the preferred method of dealing with a person after they’ve died, but it is acceptable,” he said, noting that he has officiated funerals of those who have been cremated and those where the cremated remains will be buried.
Fellman said that he does have a conversation with families seeking cremation, “pushing them a little, to make sure they really want to do this making sure they understand what this means and what kind of modeling this is for children but I would absolute officiate it,” he said.
Ralph Schugar Chapel President and licensed funeral director Sharon Ryave Brody said that her family-owned business does offer cremation services but that, for her, it’s a paradox.
“I’m very traditional,” she said. “For me, cremation is not something I or my family would choose. We are a business that serves the entire community though, not just a small segment of it, so we have to be open to everybody’s needs.”
The funeral home’s mission, she said, is to meet people where they are.
It’s most important to honor the life of a person and offer closure for loved ones, Brody said.
And while she said that some Jewish cemeteries won’t bury cremains, others will, especially if tahara, or the traditional Jewish practice of readying a body for burial, was followed.
Cremation, Brody said, is seen by some as a more environmentally responsible option than traditional burial. That isn’t necessarily the case, she pointed out.
“I think the traditional Jewish funeral is the most environmentally friendly — a plain pine box, no embalming. Jews are the pioneers of a green burial,” she said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.