A few weeks ago, Rona Ramon – the widow of the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, z”l, and mother of Assaf Ramon, an Israeli fighter pilot killed in a training accident (2009) – died following a long battle with cancer. Ramon was known for her work and contributions to Israeli society, especially since her husband’s death.
Ramon requested that her body be cremated in order to spare her family the pain of experiencing another funeral. In response, Rav Yehuda Dery, rabbi of Beer Sheva, appealed to her family to reconsider their decision.
In addition, Rav Ratzon Arusi, rabbi of Kiryat Ono, publicly expressed his opposition to cremation. However, he prefaced his words by acknowledging that Ramon experienced great suffering due to the loss of her husband, her son, and her battle with cancer, and we cannot possibly begin to understand the state she was in when she ordered her body to be cremated. Therefore, he writes, his words do not relate specifically to Rona Ramon, but are directed towards those who wish to understand the Torah’s position regarding cremation. I write this article in the same spirit.
Halachic authorities immediately spoke out against cremation when cremation facilities were first opened across Europe in the late 19th century. Indeed, they even opposed interning the ashes of a cremated body.
One of the first treatises on cremation, Ya’aneh Ba’esh, was written in 1886 by R. Eliyahu ben Amozegh, chief rabbi of Livorno. Another one in 1901 by R. Yisrael Chaim Braun, Beis Yisrael, collected letters from Central European rabbis who prohibited cremation. Yet another one in 1905 – Chayei Olam by Dr. Meir Lerner of Altona, Germany – contains over 150 letters from rabbis across the world prohibiting cremation.
In 1911, the Orthodox rabbis of Germany met in Frankfurt am Main and publicly reaffirmed their opposition to cremation. In 1935, the rabbis of Jerusalem issued a similar declaration (Daas Kohen, Yoreh De’ah 197).
Biblical Accounts of Burning Bodies
Some proponents of cremation point to biblical verses that seem to indicate that cremation was an accepted Jewish practice in ancient times. For example, they cite Tanach’s description of the death of Asa, the third king of Judea, who was “laid in the bed which was filled with sweet odors and diverse kinds [of spices] prepared by the perfumers’ art; and they made a very great burning for him” (II Divrei Hayamim 16:13-14).
Similarly, Tanach relates that after Yehoram, king of Israel, died, “his people made no burning for him like the burning of his fathers” (ibid. 21:19; see also Yirmiyahu 34:4-5), which implies that earlier kings were burnt.
Some explain that bodies were never burned, only spices and perfumes. The Tosefta (Shabbos 7:18) teaches, “They mark the death of kings by burning a pyre…and what is it that they burn on the pyre on his account? His bed and the things he would use” – not their bodies.
Tanach’s description of the aftermath of Shaul’s death is more problematic. Tanach relates that after Shaul and his sons were killed during a battle with the Pelishtim, the people of Yavesh-Gilead “took the body of Shaul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beis Shean, and they came to Yabesh, and burnt them there” (I Shmuel 31:12).
So were the bodies of Shaul and his son burned? The Radak says no. He proposes that only their possessions were burned; alternatively, he suggests the people burned perfumes or their inner organs in preparation for embalmment. Finally, he suggests that their bodies had already begun to decay and the people of Yavesh-Gilead deemed it disrespectful to bury their bodies in such a condition. Interestingly, the parallel passage in Divrei HaYamim regarding the deaths of Shaul and his sons (10:12) explicitly states that “their bones were buried” (emphasis added).
Indeed, throughout Tanach it seems that burning bodies was a sign of great disrespect. For example, when Achan and his children were executed for taking the spoils of Yericho, “all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them in the fire” (Yehoshua 7:25). Similarly, when Yoshiyahu executed the priests of idolatry (kohanei bamos), he burned their bones (II Melachim 23:20). Finally, Amos says G-d will not forgive Moav “because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime” (Amos 2:1).
Reasons to Prohibit Cremation
Acharonim raise numerous objections to cremation. R. David Tzvi Hoffman (Melamed Leho’il, Yoreh De’ah 2:114), for example, writes that cremation violates the Biblical obligation to bury the dead (Devarim 21:23) and is a form of desecrating the deceased (nivul ha’mes). The Achiezer (3:72) adds that one violates the prohibition of delaying burial by burning a body (bal talin).
R. Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (Daas Kohen, Yoreh De’ah 197) suggests that cremation may violate the prohibition of chukat akum (imitating the ways of non-Jews). The Beis Yitzchak (Yoreh De’ah 1:155) adds that just as burial is an affirmation in the belief of the resurrection of the dead (techi’as hamesim), destroying a body via cremation may demonstrate a rejection of this fundamental principle.
Some note that cremating a Jew is particularly objectionable nowadays considering that just 70 years ago the Nazis cremated millions of our people.
Burying Ashes and Mourning
Those Who Were Cremated
Acharonim discuss whether one may bury the ashes of cremated person in a Jewish cemetery. Some (Beis Yitzchak, ibid., Achiezer, ibid., Gesher HaChaim 1:6:9, Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus 1:3:21, Da’as Kohen ibid., Igros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 3:147:2) prohibit doing so in order to demonstrate the community’s disapproval of cremation. The Seridei Esh (2:95:98) suggests that the ashes should be buried, but in a separate area of the cemetery.
R. Marcus Hirsch, and his son-in-law R. Chanoch Ehrentrau (Cheker Halacha, 1904), permit burying the ashes in a Jewish cemetery. Likewise, during their tenures as chief rabbis of England, both R. Nathan Adler and his son R. Herman Adler allowed ashes of cremated bodies to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
One who is burned against his will, in an accident, or al kiddush Hashem – such as those killed in the Holocaust (see Har Tzvi, Yoreh De’ah 275, Tzitz Eliezer 8:35) – is certainly afforded a proper burial in a Jewish cemetery.
The Minchas Elazar (2:34), in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling that one does not mourn for those who “separate from the ways of the community” (Yoreh De’ah 345:5), rules that one should not observe the laws of mourning for a person who chose to be cremated. Some suggest that nowadays the choice to be cremated is most often made out of ignorance, and therefore the person’s family may properly sit shiva and say Mourners Kaddish.
In Israel, an organization promoting cremation, Aley Shalechet, was founded in 2004. In reaction, the Rabbanut’s Rabbinic council two years later issued a ruling stating that “a person who commanded that his body be cremated may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery, and [his family does not] sit shiva, or observe other mourning practiced from him.”