Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

Cremation – the ultimate abuse

Dear Rabbi.  My elderly mother is lying in the hospital, unconscious.  The doctors say it is only a matter of days before she succumbs.  In her last lucid moments, she declared to my two brothers and me that she wishes to be cremated.  This had never been discussed before.  We are secular Jews, but I know enough about Judaism to know that cremation is not the Jewish way.  My brothers feel we must honour our mother’s request – after all isn’t “honour thy mother” one of the Ten Commandments?  I feel that it is totally wrong.  What can I do to persuade my brothers that we must give her a proper Jewish burial?  Thank you. Edith.

Dear Edith,

I am glad that you reached out to a rabbi.

Firstly, where there is life there is still hope. Doctors are healers not clairvoyants.  I pray your mother recovers and lives for many more happy years!

Honouring of parents is certainly a huge mitsva.  But not always does obeying their instructions constitute honouring them. Ask your brothers the following: Imagine in her younger days your mother had been a pioneer in the women’s boxing movement (perish the thought!) One day, she had asked one of you to be her sparring-partner. Would you have agreed to have landed so much as one punch on your mother’s face? (I sincerely hope and trust their answer would be no as the Torah unconditionally forbids striking a parent.)  Or suppose she had lost her mind and asked you to strike a match and inflict a burn upon her. Is it conceivable you would have obeyed her wish? Undoubtedly, their answer to that latter question will be “no!”

Yet not only your brothers but many who are by nature caring and compassionate will think nothing of abusing their parents’ bodies by burning them to ashes in an incinerator after they die.

Would any Jew (even a secular one) view the intentional burning of a worn-out Sefer Torah with anything other than revulsion? Yet a human being is holier than a Torah scroll! If either the one or the other can be saved, it is the human being!

Burial is a Torah requirement. It is cited in the very first sidra of the Torah. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground whence you came, for dust you are and to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19). Abraham pays an exorbitant sum of money to bury Sarah (23:14-16). The body of even a convicted murderer must not remain hanging overnight, rather you shall bury him on that day. Our commentators explain that since a human being is created in the Divine image, (1:27) treating a human corpse with disrespect (and it is difficult to imagine a more heinous disrespect than burning it to a cinder) is a disgrace to G-D Himself.

However even those for whom G-D or religion isn’t a consideration may wish to reflect about exactly what is being done to their loved ones’ body.

Cremation is a sly euphemism for “burning”. And cremation-advocates, knowing they can hardly speak about “final resting places” instead use the vague and meaningless term “final disposition”. There is no “rest” for the cremated. Online I found an advertorial put out by a cremation agency entitled “how to talk to your kids about cremation”. The article freely admits that kids might freak out if the subject isn’t sanitised for them. It advocates that the child be gently told Grandma will be “put in a very warm room where their body is turned into soft ashes”. The reality of course is that Grandma will be fried and disfigured until her body is reduced to cinders.

So why do people opt to be cremated?  My guess is that your mother was wanting to be considerate of either your finances or your time or both! Cremation is usually a cheaper option. It is also more “convenient” and “efficient”, as the cremation companies will not hesitate to tell you. To quote from one: “Planning a funeral is not an easy process and you can avoid all that trouble ….Cremation eliminates the need for all these arrangements …and it’s over much quicker!”

Indeed! And no time is afforded the bereaved to grieve or to mourn! Even many non-Jews view with great admiration the Jewish way in death and mourning, the respectful way the body is treated, the washing, the robing, the watching, the involvement of the family, the shiv’a.  Cremation advocates wish to “relieve the stress” of these cathartic rites and in so doing disconnect the family from the natural grieving process.

Perhaps your mother considered cremation to be more eco-friendly than burial. In fact, as Doron Kornbluth observes in his excellent book “Cremation or Burial”, cremations use up a huge amount of fossil fuels, the single greatest polluters of the environment. They also generate an enormous level of toxic emissions including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and mercury. Kornbluth cites a recent study revealing that “the risk of stillbirth was 4% higher and the risk of anencephalus (life-threatening brain abnormality) 5% higher among babies whose mothers lived near to crematoria”. I wonder if your brothers are aware of all this!

Burial, on the other hand, succours the ground. In the words of author and environmentalist Mark Harris: “As it decomposes, the body releases into the surrounding soil its cache of organic nutrients. The microbes, insets and other organisms that attend a decaying corpse further nourish the ground with their leavings and remains; they also aerate the dirt, loosening compacted earth and thereby creating fertile ground …” As is well known, Jewish coffins are simple, biodegradable caskets with holes in the bottom so that the body connects with the earth immediately. Let your brothers know of this too,

Finally, you may want to remind your brothers very gently that burning has always been the anti-Semite’s favourite method of eliminating Jews, from Nimrod’s attempt to kill Abraham through the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust. This was their way of saying: “Nothing of you exists anymore!”

Surely, surely, this is not the way that any Jew should wish to treat loved ones – however secular he or she may be!   

I daven that you will be successful in bringing your mother to an honourable burial when the time comes.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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