Question: How can a Jewish cemetery permit the burial of cremated ashes on sacred ground?
My father (a Reform Jew) wishes to be cremated and buried next to my mother. The Jewish cemetery says the cremated ashes can be buried next to my mother as long as there is a permit in place. I personally find cremation offensive, especially after the Holocaust. If my dad wants to be cremated that is his choice, however I would like to know how a Jewish cemetery can "sign on" to having cremated bodies placed in the ground. If Jewish Law says a Jew should not be cremated, then shouldn't a Jewish cemetery have a policy against placing cremated remains in sacred burial ground?
Answer: Dear Carol,
Thank you for your question about cremation in Jewish tradition. Your question concerns your father who has requested that he be cremated and buried next to your mother. You are concerned about a cemetery permitting such an arrangement because of the disapproval of cremation in Jewish tradition.
Jewish law takes a very strong position on the importance of honoring the dead. Any action that brings shame or desecration upon the dead is forbidden in Jewish law. Also, Jewish law requires the timely burial of the dead in the earth. Both of these laws are interpreted against the practice of cremation.
As you mentioned in your letter, the Jewish position against cremation has taken an added dimension since the experience of the Holocaust. The burning of Jewish bodies, for many, has strongly disturbing resonances for many of today's Jews.
There is a difference of opinion, however, concerning the burial of ashes remaining from cremation. Many, but not all, traditional authorities do forbid the burial of ashes in a Jewish cemetery because it encourages the practice of cremation. Some traditional authorities, however, do permit internment of ashes because to deny burial would itself be a violation of the command to bury.
The Conservative Movement has ruled that cremation is not permitted. However, after the fact of cremation, the Conservative Movement does permit burial in a Jewish cemetery without the officiation of a rabbi.
The Reform Movement has a stated position that rabbis should not refuse to officiate at the burial of the ashes of a Jew in a Jewish cemetery. The Movement maintains a position of discouraging cremation.
I hope this is helpful to you.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser