After the horrific stories of burning bodies in crematoria, the thought of any burnt body haunts me.
Jewish law argues that the return of the human body to the earth should neither be slowed (mummification) nor quickened (cremation). Rather it should be a natural process of returning one to the earth that one came from (after cleaning the body, dressing it in modest shrouds, and placing it in a modest box). The human being is created in the image of G-d and the human body is the vessel that carries the soul in this world; it is not to be desecrated and mutilated.
Today in America, however, we seem to be moving away from the dignity of a burial. For every person who is now buried in America, four are now cremated. Even further, the human body has been turned into a spectator exhibit.
It’s true that funerals and burials can be expensive, but they need not be and I have argued against the rising costs. Cremation may be a simpler and cheaper solution, but to honor the deceased we owe them better. Every human being has the right to the dignity of a proper burial and natural return to the earth.
Loved ones often desire a physical reminder of their loved ones and a place to where they can direct their love, prayers, and kindness. The Talmud explains that doing kindness for and honoring the deceased is a necessary part of religious life (Sukkah 49b).
Our Sages taught: Gemilut chasadim (physical acts of loving kindness) are greater than tzedakah (financial contributions to support others in need) in three ways: Acts of tzedakah involve only one’s money – gemilut chasadim can involve both money or one’s personal service. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor – gemilut chasadim can be done both for the rich and for the poor. Tzedakah can be given only to the living – gemilut chasadim can be done both for the living and the dead.
G-d gathered the dust [of the first human] from the four corners of the world—red, black, white and green. Red is the blood, black is the innards and green for the body. Why from the four corners of the earth? So that if one comes from the east to the west and arrives at the end of his life as he near departing from the world, it will not be said to him, “This land is not the dust of your body, it’s of mine. Go back to where you were created.” Rather, every place that a person walks, from there he was created and from there he will return.
There are barriers to doing burials today, as they need to be less expensive and parent-child bonds need to be stronger. But for the sake of the sanctity of the body, the honor of the deceased, and the healing and moral journey of the descendants, we should encourage returning bodies modestly to the earth they came from.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”