I took my seventh graders to the U.S. Holocaust Museum the other day. We stopped in front of the crematorium door as the students took in what it meant: that the Nazis burned the bodies of their mostly Jewish victims like we might burn garbage.
Jewish mourning practices have always prohibited cremation. Jewish tradition believes that ultimately at some end of days, our soul will be reunited with its body, miraculously, resurrected. Even if we may not believe in the physicality of resurrection of the dead, we can appreciate the metaphorical message inherent in it: that our embodied life in this world is inherently worthwhile.
The Greeks, and by extension Christian theologians, saw the soul as good and pure and the flesh as weak and evil. According to the Jewish philosopher Will Herberg, the Jewish belief in resurrection (the reunification of our soul with its body at the end of days) is the antithesis of Greek/Christian belief. Judaism says that the body God created for us is good and holy in its own right, not something to be merely sloughed off and eliminated when our soul is ready to continue on to the next world. The body is thus inherently good, and our bodily experiences in this world have such wholeness and holiness that there is a place for our bodies in a future perfect world.
This is one of the reasons Judaism prohibits cremation.
A number of religious traditions practice cremation, and it is not my place to judge them. However, we can condemn where some traditions used cremation to take innocent life. Just think of the Moloch worshippers burning children in the fires of Geihinnom, the valley of Hinnom, below Jerusalem’s walls (one possible source for the idea of a fiery hell), or the Hindu communities who, until recently, may have forced widows to commit sati, “voluntarily” accepting cremation with their deceased husbands. In such scenarios, cremation has certainly been used to devalue life. (Hindu cremation traditions thankfully continue now without sati. The last documented case of sati occurred in 1987.)
Our sages understood that those who burn bodies may all too readily devalue human life. The Holocaust made that all too clear.
Some consider cremation an inexpensive alternative to burial. To that, I reply that a graveside funeral and simple pine casket is certainly preferable Jewishly and need not be much more expensive. Others are concerned about the ecological waste of land required for burial. I think about the trees and open spaces cemeteries protect and remember that burial is part of God’s recycling plan: from dust we are formed and to dust we return, as the soul returns to God who gave it.
There is great wisdom in Jewish funeral practices. Wisdom to help the mourner walk the journey of loss and recover, wisdom to cherish and value the goodness of the entirety of human life and experience. These are lessons our world still needs to learn. So perhaps, more than ever, we should hold tightly to our traditional prohibition of cremation and let our loved ones rest gently in God’s green earth.