Exploring Jewish Reasons for Ground Burial – An Alphabetic Acrostic
By David Zinner
This article represents that position of the author and does not necessarily represent the position of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington or Kavod v’Nichum.
Many Jews are asking if cremation is an acceptable alternate to in-ground burial. Isn’t cremation simple and inexpensive? Isn’t cremation quick and the least burden on my children? Jewish educators and funeral homes serving Jews report rapid increases in Jews asking about, and asking for, cremation.
While there are no firm statistics on Jewish cremation, there are cremation statistics for the overall population of Canada and the United States. Cremation after death rose in the U.S. from 21% in 1996 to 26% in 2000. Projections 25 years out are that 50% of all deaths will end in cremation. Canadian rates of cremation are much higher, already at 40% in 1996 and increasing steadily. We can only assume that Jewish cremation rates are following the statistical trend of the U.S. and Canada.
The probable increasing rate of Jewish cremation in the U.S. and Canada raises serious concerns about the tradition of Jewish burial and the survival of Jewish communal cemeteries. Cremation also has profound implications for Judaism and the Jewish community’s treatment of the dead and the bereaved.
Traditional sources offer little in-depth thinking about cremation. For example, Rabbi Abner Weiss addresses cremation in a total of 15 lines of a 400 page Halachic guide to Death and Bereavement. He says that cremation is a “tragic commentary on the erosions of Jewish norms and values”. While Rabbi Maurice Lamm devotes a full page to cremation, his discussion starts and ends with the statement that “Cremation is never permitted.”
This article provides ten talking points that explore the burial vs cremation question from different angles. The discussion is arranged as an alphabetic acrostic, a traditional form of Jewish writing. One of the more famous Hebrew alphabetic acrostics is the Ashamnu (we have acted wrongly), from the Viddui (confession) of the Yom Kippur (Days of Awe) liturgy.
There are additional articles on this subject on the Jewish Funerals, Burial and Mourning web site.
1. Atmospheric – We no longer burn leaves because of overuse of fossil fuels and problems with air pollution. When we cremate bodies we put visible emissions, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, metals (mostly mercury from dental fillings), dioxins and furans into the air. Burial returns what God has given us to the earth, not the sky.
2. Biological – Decomposition is a natural process that builds the soil. The bacteria that aid in digestion while we are living are instrumental in our decomposition after we die.
3. Communal – Cremation in the U.S. and Canada is usually done privately in a crematorium, with no witnesses or ceremony. On the other hand, burial is usually done with community participation. The ritual of accompanying the deceased to burial, saying prayers, and the actual burial process often provide needed support for the bereaved family. A Jewish Cemetery makes a statement about a community, the active Jewish life that was there and the close bonds people had with each other.
4. Disrespectful – After a typical Western cremation the remaining bone fragments are crushed and put into a container for the family to keep. But homes are not designed for long term storage and the remains may be discarded or forgotten. Cremation is at odds with the respectful way tahara (ritual washing) and kevurah (burial) are done. Our sages have compared a dead body to a torah scroll that could no longer be used – still deserving of maximum respect.
5. Environmental – Cremation uses less land than burial, but burial can help preserve the land it does use. For those of us who live in the city, or in the suburbs, or even in the country, preservation of open, green space may be a challenge. Developers are skilled at squeezing maximum usage from every inch of space. Cemeteries preserve open space and are difficult for developers to acquire. One future challenge is to make cemeteries more “green” or environmentally conscious.
6. Financial – Cremations often do cost less than burials. But, we can keep the cost of funerals and burials low by owning and managing our own cemeteries and by participating in community contracts, which can save thousands of dollars. We can also take a more active role in cemetery policies and advocate for plots with no liners and even advocate for elimination of caskets. In many places in the U.S. and Canada, Muslim communities have negotiated agreements with cemeteries that allow them to bury without caskets or liners. Most local jurisdictions allow these practices.
7. Genealogical – Cemetery markers are important for future generation visits and genealogical research. Think about the most permanent way to convey information. You could put information on a computer, a floppy disk, a video tape, an audio tape, a vinyl record or a piece of paper. What are the chances that 100 years from now that the information could be deciphered or that the media would still be readable? Take it to the most basic. A polished rock with an inscription – designed to last hundreds of years. Locate it in a protected area, a cemetery which we surround with a fence, prohibit the cemetery’s development, and create rituals to maintain and to preserve it.
8. Historical – The first Jewish communal cemetery dates back to 1000 CE. In a 1000 year unbroken chain Jews have been buried in a Jewish Cemetery to let future generations know that a Jewish community existed. In the Prague Cemetery we see layers upon layer of Jewish burials. Historically a cemetery has been the first Jewish institution formed in a new community, before schools and synagogue. A tragic part of our history is the Nazi murder of millions of Jews. Many of us shudder when we hear the word “crematorium”. How can we forget the horrible way so many of our relatives died? When we are buried in a Jewish cemetery, we preserve a part of the history of our community.
9. Intensity – The tradition of burial helps families work through their grief. K’vurah – filling in the grave is a startling, unusual action, that forces us to confront the reality of death. According to Maurice Lamm, “the heart-rending thud of earth on the casket is enormously beneficial. In proclaiming finality, it helps the mourner overcome the illusion that the relative still lives; it answers her disbelief that death has indeed claimed its victim; it quiets his lingering doubts that this may be only a bad dream.”
10. Judaic – Jewish law and tradition is to be buried in the ground. Early in Genesis, Abraham buries Sarah. The other patriarchs and matriarchs are also buried. The words in Deut. 21:23 are “You shall surely bury him”. In the Jewish tradition, the Chevra Kadisha (holy burial society) carefully and lovingly washes the body and dresses the body in tachrichim, simple white burial garments with no pockets. The Chevra Kadisha treats the body with the utmost respect. They ask for forgiveness if they have violated the person’s privacy. This beautiful and profound ritual is usually not available for those who will be cremated.