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Cremation in the Face of Hitler’s Ovens

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.



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Rick Abrams

posted June 22, 2006 at 5:05 pm


While tradition may help us keep our balance in a changing world, it can also become “binds on our minds.” As a kid in a Conservative shul, I found the Torah potions about a psycho G-d who caused trouble between brothers (Cain and Abel), etc. to be a unpleasant image and spent a lot of time thinking about a passage in the back of the Sidur saying that a good part of being Jewish is that there was no Abdication of the Mind. Part of Rabbi Grossman’s reasoning sounded AS IF we should not cremate because of certain unrelated events in the past. That’s different from doing something in a particular way because we CHOSE to infuse the practice with particular meanings based on our history or values. I am uncertain which appoach rabbi Grossman was taking — maybe ein bissel of both.



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Rob Larsen

posted June 22, 2006 at 5:41 pm


Thank you for your commentary on cremation. However, my only comment is that in Christianity, most would at least discourage cremation, while others would prohibit cremation, at least those with ties to the ancient church. Matter, including our physical bodies, is a part of the LORD’s creation and not evil (Gnostics would have looked at the material world, physical bodies, as “evil”). The Incarnation would be one of various soild reasons why Christianity (at least orthodox Christianity)does not practice cremation. Thank you. rob larsen west hills, ca



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Mike

posted June 22, 2006 at 8:37 pm


Embalming is equally forbidden in the Jewish tradition. Yet, we here less and less about it from Orthodox Jews as time goes on. I live in Dallas. To be shipped to Chicago or New York after death, a funeral home has to pack you in dry ice. There can be no animals in the cargo area of the plane the deceased is traveling in. I worked at a non-Jewish funeral home years ago. I would never want my body subjected to the semi-surgical/chemical procedures that go on during embalming. I CAN see where direct cremation without embalming might be a better route for some people.



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Joan

posted June 22, 2006 at 8:48 pm


My Father, OBM, was very specific in his wishes to be cremated. While he was more agnostic in his spiritual beliefs, he was Jewish in every other way, if such a thing is possible. I did not agree with his wishes to be cremated but I would never go against them. A Rabbi from a Jewish Mortuary handled everything, including his burial at a National Cemetary with military honors. Honoring my Father in his death was just as important ans honoring him in his life. Every individual has an interpretation of how life is lived and what happens after death, no matter what the written word tells us. I do not believe in cremation but I do not condemn others for their beliefs.



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Bunsinspace

posted June 22, 2006 at 8:51 pm


BS”D The article’s suggestion for a pine box is OK. But traditionally it was just clean linen wrappings. The notions of vault, coffin, and embalming are largely legal codes pertaining to the United States and other nations for health and sanitation reasons. I do not know the halakha of creamtion in nations where cremation is the lawful custom (I also know of no such nations firsthand), but I would be interested in hearing from those who do know of it. In all the ancient cultures where cremation was the custom, it was considered a great honor, not a sign of disrespect as in contemporary Jewish culture. OTOH, not only the Holocauset would seem to mitigate it but the forbidden sacrifices to Moloch as recounted in Torah even moreso. But I did not intend to make an halakhic argument out of this similar to the tone of the article which treats the issue culturally (touchy-feely rather than Torah and mitzvos -ot that I have any problem with such an exposition.)



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Norma G

posted June 22, 2006 at 9:05 pm


Our children do not live in the city where we raised them. One is on the west coast, another 2 are trying to find their place in the USA. If we are buried here in the mid west no one will visit our graves. In this traveling society, burial vs cremation is a delimma. All 3 adult children are unlikely to marry Jewish despite our upbringing. One is already married. They don’t care if we are buried vs cremated, should we really?



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Dorothy Hanna

posted June 22, 2006 at 10:43 pm


I did not know that Jews, believed the body would be reunited with the soul, nor did I know that cremation is considered, not a good idea, by the Jews. Is it because, the genetic code would be destroyed by the fire. This makes sense, if so. I also, didn’t know they don’t think embalming to be a bad idea, also. Doesn’t embalming, presreve the genetic material? If not, I wouldn’t want it either.



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Mike

posted June 22, 2006 at 10:45 pm


My mother voiced what I couldn’t. I was considering cremation, but when she looked at the photos of the process…she gasped that it looked like something out of Germany. The Reform rabbi in my parents town of Springfield, Illinois was cremated a number of years ago. The funeral industry in the United States is like the kashrut industry. It is far too expensive for many Jews….the Jewish community needs to help change that…



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Robert Little

posted June 23, 2006 at 12:24 am


First of all,I dislike creamation. My dilemma is this, the same great God that create us, is thesame Great God that can command the body and soul to be reunited no matter what. Even if fire destroys the genetic code can not God restore it back?



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Jeanne Fox

posted June 23, 2006 at 12:56 am


Of course God can resurrect someone who was cremated, Preserving one’s genetic code is not necessary because God already knows your genetic code. It doesn’t have to be preserved. The people who were vaporized at Hiroshema and Nagasaki will bodily resurrect. God’s power is absolutely amazing!



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Mike Turoff

posted June 23, 2006 at 4:33 am


While I can understand the viewpoints expressed against cremation, I would like to point out that in today’s cemeteries, cement casings surrounding a coffin prevent nature from taking its course as was originally intended with in-ground internment. As a skydiver, I have participated in numeous cremains scatterings in freefall of those who have departed and I intend to have my cremains similarly scattered in a formation of friends in freefall, with my cremains becoming the cloud of dust released in celebration of the passage of my life. This truly returns the ashes of the person to the winds in God’s hands.



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Gordon Wiebe

posted June 23, 2006 at 6:46 am


I appreciate a rabbinical insight into the practice of cremation. I would only point out that, the Rabbi has perhaps been reading too much Dan Brown and not enought New Testament. Christians do not view the body as evil, but rather as the Temple of God. She confuses Christianity with Gnosticism.



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Vince Yeoh

posted June 23, 2006 at 8:22 am


This comment is not meant to dispute religious beliefs, but only to bring up different perspectives. I believe that the reuniting of the soul and the physical body during resurrection cannot be taken literally as there would be no such body in existence, as even buried bodies would have decomposed (ashes to ashes, dust to dust). And what about those who are killed by fire through accidents or murders? Frankly, a body is just a temporary abode for the soul. After the soul is gone, the body is meaningless (unless you are some great historical figure worth preserving?) A dead body can be cremated or even eaten (by those who are starving and still alive). At least in the case of the latter, it is still being put to good use.



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Susan Heilbrunn Shapiro

posted June 23, 2006 at 1:51 pm


My first reaction to your piece was NOT about cremation, but rather that you took 12 year-olds through the main exhibit at the USHMM! I understand that many schools take children even younger to the museum, but that does not make it a good thing. Children are not capable of assimilating what they see/hear/smell/touch in this exhibit. Until they reach full abstract conceptualization, closer to 14 or 15, such experiences can be even damaging. Consider your goal in taking your students there. Are they really capable of the intellectual separation of self from the emotional shock of what is there, while maintaining their recognition that they are bound to the inextricable heritage of their ancestors? I teach the Holocaust to 7th graders at a conservative shul in Chicago and to juniors and seniors at a local independent school. My juniors and seniors spend three days doing research in the museum each year. The first day is spent exclusively in the main exhibit. They are drained, exhausted and deeply affected by their experience in the exhibit in part BECAUSE they know what it means. They are well prepared to see it. No matter how well prepared my 7th graders might be (and they do a great deal of learning that is age appropriate!), their reactions to it would be too unpredictable, too delicate, too potentially scarring to risk. The USHMM is a remarkable national treasure and a powerful force in learning and teaching the Holocaust and modern genocide. It is also an enormously manipulative and agonizing memorial. I urge you to reconsider the age at which you introduce them to the main exhibit.



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Susan Heilbrunn Shapiro

posted June 23, 2006 at 2:04 pm


On the main topic, I painfully complied with my parents’ desires to be cremated. In a modern world in which we make lots of compromises with halakha, this “compromise” is one which I have the most trouble with. Whatever the Jewish beliefs about the afterlife, desecration of the body after death seems to me to be a simple violation of our covenant with G-d. We care for our bodies in life because G-d commands us to, that we might be well and work for a better world. The body is the vessel of the spirit that responds to G-d’s commandments. To violate the body after death is to thumb our noses at the Creator who made it.



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Schlomo

posted June 23, 2006 at 2:27 pm


Considering that the Holocaust is the new secular Jewish religion in a world without G-d, isn’t cremation an appropriate disposal of the body? Is it not to these “burnt offerings” that we owe our Jewish State of Israel? Schalom



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irony_optional

posted June 23, 2006 at 3:42 pm


Tibetans traditionally use “sky burial.” From Wikipedia: “Sky burial is a ritual practice common in Tibet that involves a priest’s cutting the body into small pieces and then placing it on top of a mountain and expose it ritually, especially to birds of prey.” Rituals and traditions around death have as much meaning as we give to them, whatever the procedures involed.



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TDW Segtall

posted June 23, 2006 at 4:20 pm


I find ideas such as the reunification of the body and soul at the end of days to be a superstitious belief which has little to do with what most people believe nowadays. I have arranged for my body to be sent to medical school when I die so that even my dead body may do some good in this world due to the shortage of cadavers for medical students to study. I am pesonally at the far left of the Reform movement, and I hope thqt my words do not offend or upset any of my more Orthodox or Conservative Jewish brethren.



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LAURA

posted June 23, 2006 at 7:25 pm


As a child someone told me that Jews need to be as whole as possible when burried because when the Messiah comes everyone will need to be able to “return”. Even then it seemed strange that 1)G-d who knows everything would not know everyone who ever lived 2) the Being that created the universe would not be able to put everyone back as they originally were, even those who lost body parts before death! Cremation and having the ashes blown in the wind would not mean a problem for G-d to bring the person back. How do you explain the fact that all Jews are allowed to have body parts saved after death-it is even a mitzvah? Someday when there is no place to bury in earth or buildings, I think it will be cremation or medical contributions only. For me, because of my family, I will have some body parts removed and a funeral. Laura



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Paul

posted June 23, 2006 at 7:33 pm


I consider myself to be a christian. No were in th O.T or N.T. Do i see were it says anyhing about creamation. Since G-dade us, certainly he could put us back together. When He comes to place His kindom on earth



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noland mcfarland

posted June 23, 2006 at 8:30 pm


I have to agree with paul.Theres nowhere in the bible that specifically indicates a proper or improper way of burial.All the kings horses and all the kings men couldnt put humpty dumpty together again.But come on folks we are talking about God.He can do all and everything.(my humpty dumpty reference was not an atempt to make light of the subject.there is a difference between one’s religious practice and the actual word of God.



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noland mcfarland

posted June 23, 2006 at 8:30 pm


I have to agree with paul.Theres nowhere in the bible that specifically indicates a proper or improper way of burial.All the kings horses and all the kings men couldnt put humpty dumpty together again.But come on folks we are talking about God.He can do all and everything.(my humpty dumpty reference was not an atempt to make light of the subject.there is a difference between one’s religious practice and the actual word of God.



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Sarah DelliGatti

posted June 23, 2006 at 10:01 pm


Christianity does not equate the flesh with weakness and evil. On the contrary, King David said in Psalm 139 “…You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Even the angels at the throne of God extol His glory throughout creation, crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6) Christians view their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit; however, all of God’s creation is meant to direct our attention to HIS GLORY, not simply the creation itself. As well, true faith in The Fall of Genesis brings an understanding that even the glorious creation of our fleshly bodies has been marred by the effects of sin. Imagine, Adam and Eve had pure and perfect bodies, free from defect, disease, or death! Not so my body, as glorious as it seems when I consider its amazing design. When Christians talk about our struggle with “the flesh,” they are most likely referring to the sinful nature present in every human being from birth. (“There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” Eccl 7:20) The New Testament clearly teaches Christians of a physical resurrection of the body. However, during that resurrection, in the “twinkling of an eye,” we will be given glorified bodies that will last for eternity. This wonderful promise is the reason Christians over the centuries have become martyrs without thought or concern over the scars left by lions or fire. As the Apostle Paul pointed out, as much as he loved living for Christ, to die meant Christ (in heaven for eternity with Christ), and that was even better! Here is the irony: Some who are so concerned over the treatment of a dead body (ashes and dust, though dearly loved) think nothing of aborting an unborn child (ashes and dust but still filled the breath of G-d)?! The flesh is temporary, the spirit eternal. Find redemption in God, and let the dead bury the dead. (Luke 9:60) Submitted with great love for God’s chosen people!



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sinsonte

posted June 23, 2006 at 11:34 pm


There is much in the rabbi’s blog that troubles me. She states, “Our sages understood that those who burn bodies may all too readily devalue human life. The Holocaust made that all too clear.” This is putting the cart before the horse. I doubt cremation was common in Germany. The Catholic Church forbade it until 1968 and we remember the controversy when Pres. Reagan went to Bitburg where SS officers were buried. The Nazis devalued the life of those who they found inferior. The disposal by burning of the bodies they murdered was an outgrowth of their mechanized/industrialized death machine. Practicing cremation did not lead to the Shoah. Secondly, linking Moloch and sati to modern cemation practices is sligh of hand unworthy of the rabbi. The former two are murders by fire and have no connection to modern funeral rights conducted by loving family and friends. Finally, her condemnation of Greek culture and Christians as people who have no respect for the body flies in the face of the prohibition against cremation among Greek Othodox Christians today — who being both Greek and Christian whould, by her analysis, be cremation enthusiasts.



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HASH(0x215f7110)

posted June 23, 2006 at 11:55 pm


Rabbi Grossman, We use our God given minds to make decisions. People have enough guilt heaped on them for not conforming to traditions, as if the Creator-of-the- universe-out-of-nothing would be so petty. You say “let our loved ones rest gently in God?s green earth” Dead bodies to not rest any more gently than dust and ashes. As to traditions, how many female rabbis were there a few thousand years ago? Think about it.



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Phyllis Beebe

posted June 24, 2006 at 2:09 am


My brothers, sisters and I had our mother cremated and we have her ashes with us and it is like having her here. She had a very painful and debilitating 7 months before she died and she did not look like she did the year before. She did not want to be embalmed and we did not either and we feel it is barbaric. God will reunite her body with her soul at the resurrection. I plan to be cremated and if my sons do not want to keep my ashes with them then they can bury their grandmothers’ and my ashes in the cemetary plots we have. Funerals are so devastating emotionally and cremation is so peaceful. We have Mother on the mantle and it seems so natural to feel her presence there. We also keep a stem or a boquet of flowers near her. I grieved when my mother died and I still grieve but I believe for me the entire burial process would have been so much harder. And as to cost; her cremation was $795 as compared to a burial that would have cost $25,ooo because she would have to have been transported to South Texas. I refuse to make funeral mongers any richer that they are. After all some people just can’t afford funeral expenses.



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Keith V. Caswell

posted June 24, 2006 at 1:21 pm


Rabbi Grossman, I greatly appreciate your insight regarding cremation. For me it was; well thought out, intelligent, insightful and, as it stands, timely.. My wife and I are discussing this very issue at this time. I look forward to more of your insights and will make more frequent use of the Virtual Talmud. Thank you



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jeri fremont

posted June 25, 2006 at 9:38 am


Saved by the bell. This means that a person who was not fully dead was prematurely buried, but had the foresight to have a bell placed in the coffin. Imagine being in a coma aand waking up, only to be sufficated inside a coffin. since Jews are buried so quickly, how do we know this hasn’t happened?



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David A Weitzler

posted June 26, 2006 at 12:07 am


Rabbi Grossman, To leave the holocaust unstripped of its exterminators when analogizing between crematory then and now is petty. Judaism acquired the notion of “heaven” during its stay in Babylon, so where are the forefathers that came before that? Burial is simply a cremation that occurs intramurally and hence out of sight.



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Liam O'Sruitheain

posted June 26, 2006 at 12:29 pm


If God is God, then he/she/it has the power to resurrect the body whether it is cremated or not. If the body decays in the ground, it turns to dust. If it is cremated, it turns to ash. Either way, it is gone. So what difference does it make? Meditate . . . . focus on the pursuit of your own enlightenment, and leave the fate of material substance to God.



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Liam O'Sruitheain

posted June 26, 2006 at 12:29 pm


If God is God, then he/she/it has the power to resurrect the body whether it is cremated or not. If the body decays in the ground, it turns to dust. If it is cremated, it turns to ash. Either way, it is gone. So what difference does it make? Meditate . . . . focus on the pursuit of your own enlightenment, and leave the fate of material substance to God.



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Bruce Lerman

posted June 29, 2006 at 6:11 pm


My Jewish mother chose cremation for my late Jewish father and herself. We, their children, still haven’t decided what to do with their ashes. We have agreed to mix them in with a tree we have planted, but it still hasn’t happened yet. On a lighter note I would suggest that all people find a copy of a movie from the sixties entitled “THE LOVED ONE” which is a satire of the funeral homes and cemetaries with Jonathan Winters, Robert Morse, Rod Steiger, and many more. One of my favorite old movies.



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Susan Jeswine

posted June 30, 2006 at 11:14 pm


(First I’d like to say ‘thanks’ to the folks that responded with a more accurate representation of Christian believing than that of the Rabbi.) Beastly bodies, bodies of animals like you and me, are made mostly of hydrocarbons and water. A hydrocarbon is a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen; they elaborate themselves by participating in the lives of proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, lipid, DNA, you know, stuff like that. There’re other vital things too, like nitrogen and phosphorus and sodium and calcium, but mostly we’re just hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon happily arranged into people and frogs, grapevines and olive trees, and that sporting leviathan. Decay is slow oxidation. Most of the body, except teeth and bones, is burned as food of bacteria using biochemical ‘heat’ and oxygen from respiration. Ultimately you are breathed out as CO2 and water. Cremation is rapid oxidation. Most of the body, except teeth and bone fragments, is burned with 1800 degrees of heat in the presence of atmospheric oxygen. The CO2 and water are released into the atmosphere. So either way you pretty much end up as CO2 and water which some tree is going to capture and use to make a leaf, which maybe a giraffe will eat. Maybe it’ll be a maple tree and you end up as maple syrup. I’d like to be a garlic bulb and you become someone’s bruschetta. What a way to see Tuscany! I like to think of this as evidence that you can’t escape the life cycle, you can’t escape the hand of G-d, even if you wanted to.



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HASH(0x215eec40)

posted August 21, 2006 at 11:52 pm


Burning kikes makes me giggle. Burn, kikes, burn.



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