The advice mensch | Cremation wishes in conflict with strict Jewish law

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Jonathan Harris, the Advice Mensch, is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at [email protected].

For as long as I’ve been an adult and conscious of my own mortality, I have figured that I would be cremated after I die. Graveyards basically creep me out. I see no reason to erect a (supposedly) permanent monument to myself, and it seems environmentally irresponsible to use acres of natural land for the sole purpose of burying dead bodies.

Another reason I don’t want a burial is that I would really like to spare my children what seems like a rather steep, and I believe unnecessary, cost. When I expressed my plan to my wife, she was very surprised that I would even consider cremation. She says Jews are not supposed to be cremated and that, should I die before her, she would have great difficulty carrying out my wishes. I never thought what happens to me after I die would be a big issue, but maybe it is. I’m not sure how to proceed. — Dave in Daly City

Dear Dave: The matter of what happens to our bodies after death may or may not be as important as what happens to our souls (and many believe the former influences the latter), but what happens to our bodies is our decision. Mensch believes this is your choice and yours alone. However, you will want to make an informed choice, one which best reflects your values and, hopefully, one which also rests well (so to speak) with your wife.

Let’s start first with Jewish law, which states pretty firmly (even unequivocally) that your body should be laid in the ground, in its entirety, ideally on the very day you die. In support of this halachah, many cite the Torah passage in which God tells Adam, “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” And while Mensch wonders why cremated remains do not count as dust, many Jewish cemeteries will not accept cremated remains.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg, writing at Chabad.org, explains that because God created man in His image (the rabbi makes no mention of woman), any violation of the human body is therefore an affront to the Creator. In short, Jewish Orthodoxy not only forbids cremation, it forbids the living from carrying out the wish by a Jew to be cremated and even dissuades survivors from carrying out certain fundamental mourning rituals, such as sitting shiva, for individuals who have been (voluntarily) cremated. So there’s that.

However, Dave, many people share your outlook and have been opting increasingly for cremation as an after-life choice. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, of the 2.5 million individuals who died in the U.S. in 2011 (the last year for which definitive numbers are available), 42 percent chose cremation, which is double the rate of just 15 years earlier. The same study projects that cremations will outnumber burials in 2015.

There are a number of reasons cited for this increase. Families have become increasingly far-flung in our mobile society and therefore less inclined to value permanent memorials. Cremation by most measures is significantly less expensive than today’s burials (more on that further on), by as much as a factor of 10 if you eschew the cost of casket, burial plot and traditional funeral service. And then there is the widespread perception that cremation is less environmentally impactful than burial. For many people, Mensch included, that our last decision should honor the Earth that sustained us in life is a powerful motivator.

But here’s something interesting. There is a trend emerging known as natural, or “green,” burial, which seeks to minimize the environmental impact of choosing a final resting place. Green burial eschews the harmful chemicals used in the embalming process, minimizes the heavy and sometimes toxic materials used in large caskets, seeks to maintain cemeteries closer to their natural state (with trees and less obtrusive markers) and save the fuel burned, and the mercury emitted, in the cremation process.

If that sounds good to you, then you might be a candidate for a burial in which your un-embalmed body would be wrapped in a simple shroud and placed in the earth. Simple, inexpensive, clean and Jewish.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at [email protected].