Your hard drive crashes. You pitch your laptop and buy a new one.
You spill merlot on your favorite white shirt. You drop it in the trash.
You total your car. You have it towed to the junkyard.
You die. Why should those you leave behind treat your body any different?
In ancient times, the nihilistic worldview of pagans regarded this physical world as both beginning and end. For them, death was an excruciating reminder of the futility of human existence. They believed that their loved ones were gone forever, and they trembled in anticipation of their own inevitable disappearance into oblivion. To vent their bitterness over the pointlessness of life, they mourned the dead by tearing gashes in their flesh.
The Torah proscribes this practice, and Jewish law instructs us to mourn by tearing our garments instead of our bodies. We ease the pain of loss by symbolically asserting that the body is merely a garment for the soul, and the soul merely passes through this world from where it previously resided toward its destination in the higher realm that lies beyond.
However, even that imagery does not adequately communicate the depth of Jewish belief. The body is more than just a garment; it is at essence a servant to the soul.
Our hands enable us to reach out to others, to perform acts of kindness, to give charity, to caress those whom we love. Our legs carry us to visit the sick and aid those in need. Our mouths allow us to articulate words of higher ideals, to study the wisdom of our people, to elevate our voices in prayer. Our minds spur us to contemplate the nobility that defines our humanity and reflect upon the magnificent design of the universe.
To merely cast off a faithful servant once his or her service is no longer required is the height of ingratitude. Such a servant deserves to be escorted with dignity, with respect, and with love.
So too the body, which has served us in life, deserves to be treated with reverence in death.
What form does that reverence take?
The Torah states explicitly that even concerning a criminal executed by the high court, “you shall bury him that same day.” At the very dawn of mankind, we find the Almighty’s declaration to Adam and Eve, “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
Burial in the earth reaffirms the eternal cycle of creation, birth and rebirth, passage and transition. It reinforces our awareness of the eternity of the human soul and the unending mission of the Jewish people. It is articulated not only in scripture but in the halachic literature of the Talmud, of Maimonides, and of Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Code of Jewish Law. The prohibition against defiling the body in any way and the obligation to bury the body in its entirety clearly disallow cremation as an option.
In contrast to popular misconceptions, cremation is neither environmental nor dignified. Despite the intense heat (and massive fossil fuel expenditure) necessary to consume a human body, the un-incinerated remains must be put through a grinding process that would offend the sensibilities of even the most stoic philosopher.
On the other hand, burial allows for the decomposition and renewal that are part of the natural order of our world. It establishes a memorial and a place for future visitation, a remembrance that we all leave our mark on the world even after we have moved on.
British Prime Minister William Gladstone remarked: “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.” In death, as in life, every human being reflects the image of our Creator, all the more so when we hold true to our traditions and apply the principles of our forebears to better ourselves and the world we live in.
In our age of cynicism, rejectionism, and self-absorption, the honor we show to those who have departed provides a poignant lesson in human dignity. By following in the footsteps of our ancestors, we pay tribute to both the past and the future, to both the dead and the living.