Though there are no official statistics, funeral directors in big cities suggest that the cremation rate has increased over the years, in some Jewish communities nearing 10% to 15%.1 What is the cause of this drastic change, and how are the various denominations of Judaism adapting to it?
Jewish Laws on Cremation
Judaism has a long history of forbidding cremation. At the dawn of Judaism, cremation was associated with pagan beliefs that most Jews tried to distance themselves from. Furthermore, the Talmud states that a body cannot be defiled and must be buried in the ground. In Jewish law, your body belongs to God, not yourself, and therefore cremation is seen as destroying God’s property.2
During the Holocaust, Jews were burned in Nazi crematories. Many current religious leaders think cremation is a disrespectful end for a Jew for this reason.3 But despite Judaism’s overall negativity toward cremation, no Jewish text explicitly bans cremation, though it’s still clear that there is a certain way to handle and prepare the body after death, and cremation is intrinsically at odds with that.
Why are Jews Choosing Cremation?
If Judaism is so against cremation, then why are so many Jews opting for it? Jews live in American culture where cremation is becoming more and more then norm, for various reasons. Cremation is cheaper, and it’s much easier to transport ashes as opposed to a full body. For example, some families may wish to return their loved ones to Israel, or to their hometown. Preparing and transporting a full body by airplane can be cost prohibitive.4
Some Jews are also given the option of having a full Jewish burial, but with their cremated remains instead of their body. Most Jewish cemeteries will agree to bury cremated remains, but may require that their ashes are kept in a coffin instead of an urn. Some cemeteries, like those owned and run by the Jewish community rather than a non-affiliated for-profit business, may refuse to bury cremated Jews altogether to deter other Jews from choosing cremation themselves. Jewish cemeteries in big urban areas often do not enforce Jewish law and will accept the wishes of their customers, leaving little incentive for choosing burial over cremation.5
Orthodox and Conservative Judaism vs. Reform Judaism Views on Cremation
While Reform Jewish communities are more lax, Conservative Rabbis are warming up to the disposition, but Orthodox Jews vehemently oppose cremation. If you choose cremation, an Orthodox or Conservative community would expect your family to go against your wishes and bury you.6 This is acceptable to them because they believe that you will only see the value of a proper Jewish funeral once you are dead and will be grateful for the burial.7
Conservative Jews believe a person is only held accountable for choosing cremation when it is done willingly, and with full knowledge of the consequences.8 Therefore Jews who have not been trained in proper Jewish traditions are not condemned for choosing cremation. Most rabbis prefer not to officiate at the funerals of cremated Jews, though the Reform movement does not object to its rabbis presiding over a funeral at which a cremation is to take place.9
Will Cremation Rates Continue to Rise?
In general, the Jewish community sees cremation as a taboo despite its growing popularity, and try to avoid it whenever they can. Despite the efforts of Conservative and Orthodox Jews, it is likely the cremation rate will continue to grow--in the same way it’s continuing to grow for non-Jews--as long as the population becomes less religious, cremation becomes a societal norm, and space in urban cemeteries decreases.