Saying No to Cremation
We should not do to ourselves what our enemies have done to us – to burn the last remnant and reminder of people we loved.
For some, the inevitability of death is frightening. For those who have faith in Jewish tradition which assures us of the continued survival of the soul after our taking leave from Earth, death is nothing more than moving from one room to another, from the corridor to the main banquet hall. The journey which we call life ends with our birth into immortality.
To understand death is to enter a realm that of necessity requires faith as a guide. No mortal has actually ever returned from the grave to give us a first-hand account. And yet most believers in the Bible as well as those of many other religions have somehow come to very similar conclusions: There is life after this life. Human beings are a wondrous combination of body and soul. The soul has its source in God; as we are told in the story of creation God blew into Adam’s body some of his spirit. God by definition is immortal. So too is a part of us, the part which truly defines us, the part which makes us who we are, the part which represents our uniqueness, the part which is the key to our essence and our being.
The Torah begins with the Hebrew letter beit. In Hebrew that letter means two. The very first message of the Torah, which tells us of the creation of this world, hints at the existence of a second world – the world to come after our sojourn here on earth.
It is a truth which demands careful attention for the way in which we lead our lives. More, it must guide us as well in the way in which we deal with the body in the aftermath of death.
Sadly, and with great pain, we must take note of a contemporary phenomenon which chooses to replace Jewish burial with cremation. This trend recently received much publicity when Rona Ramon, widow of Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon, asked to be cremated in the will she left before her untimely death two weeks ago of pancreatic cancer.
I have nothing but the greatest admiration for Rona Ramon. The manner in which she lived her life was inspirational beyond measure. Unfortunately, the way she chose to dispose of her corporeal remains was a tragic break with Jewish tradition, a tradition going back to Abraham, the first Jew, who gladly paid the fortune demanded of him in order to bury Sarah in the “Cave of the Couples” and a place where according to the midrash Adam and Eve are buried as well.
It was heartbreaking to read the reason that motivated Rona to request cremation. A mother of four when her husband perished as the Columbia spaceship disintegrated upon its ill-fated return to earth, she had to survive the additional tragedy of the death of her son in a training accident after the crash of the F-16 fighter pilot he was flying. With the heavy weight of these tragedies of the past upon her, Rona concluded – as she wrote before her passing – she did not want her children and family to be forced to go through yet another funeral.
It is not for me to judge her or God forbid to offer criticism. Clearly the tragedies of her past were responsible for her personal decision. But I believe it is necessary to remind ourselves what millennia of Jewish history have identified as the most fitting and respectful way to honor our loved ones once their souls have departed.
Jews perform an interesting symbolic ritual in response to the death of our closest relatives. It is called kriah – making a rip in one's garment. People think the purpose is to allow physical release, to tear something as a sign of anger. That is not the way the mystics of the Kabbalah explain this ritual.
The relationship between garment and body symbolically parallels the connection between body and soul.
The relationship between garment and body symbolically parallels the connection between body and soul. Clothing covers us; it isn't our essence or our identity. If a garment we wear gets ripped it doesn't actually affect us. Our true selves remain intact. So too, our bodies are the "garments" of our soul. They are external to it; one is independent of the other.
Death is the rending of our outer garment. But it is no more than that. That's why the mourners perform the mitzvah of kriah, to affirm that as painful as the loss of a loved one may be, there is great comfort in knowing that "the ripping of the garment" hasn't diminished the actual person.
Yet much as death diminishes the significance of the body, we shouldn't fail to emphasize the powerful linkage that remains even after death severs the connection between the physical remains and the soul. The soul owes its life on earth to the body. For a long time the two of them coexisted in a mutually beneficial relationship. When the soul departs at death, tradition tells us it does so in stages. It hesitates before bidding final farewell to its physical partner. Like a magnet, the soul continues to be drawn to the site of its former longtime residence. It stays close to the body, finding it difficult to accept the reality of ultimate separation.
Almost all religions and cultures acknowledge the relationship between body and soul that extends beyond death. In Judaism there is particular sensitivity to the soul’s concern for respectful treatment of “the earthly garment” that enabled it to carry out its life's mission.
The body is carefully washed, even though it will soon disintegrate. For as long as possible it needs to be accorded the dignity it earned during life. The body retains its right to modesty; only women may prepare a female body for burial and only men a male. The corpse is to be put into a closed coffin so that onlookers not are left with the memory of a diminished human being.
Honoring the body is a way of showing our respect for the soul that remains close by until it is assured that its material partner received proper treatment.
More striking still, Jewish law forbids those in the immediate presence of the dead to eat and drink or to fulfill a mitzvah – because that would be mocking them, inasmuch as they are now incapable of doing the same. The corpse may not know or care, but the soul of the departed does. Honoring the body is a way of showing our respect for the soul that remains close by until it is assured that its material partner received proper treatment.
It is surely significant that throughout history those who most wanted to bring about the end of the Jewish people sought to do it through fire. Both temples in Jerusalem were put to the torch and burnt. The Nazis built crematoria to carry out The Final Solution. In Hebrew the word for garbage is ashpah – a contraction for aish poh, "fire is here," because the most common way to get rid of the useless was to burn it. We cannot justify doing to ourselves what has been and continues to be the way of our enemies – to burn and to destroy the last remnant and reminder of people we loved.
Our Arab enemies have long understood the Jewish passion and commitment to preserving the dignity of bodies which housed Jewish souls. That is why they have demanded exorbitant ransoms for the return of Israeli bodies, hundreds of Palestinian terrorists for the remains of even one Jewish soldier.
Rona Ramon wanted to spare her grieving children and family the trauma of her burial. In years to come her loved ones will have no physical place to mourn, to visit, to remember and in some small way to be with her at graveside. That makes her cremation another cause for tears.
We dare not judge Rona Ramon, a heroic figure who endured loss beyond comprehension. But let us reaffirm the powerful words of King Solomon, “And the dust will return to the earth from where it came and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).