Project Genesis

Cremation and Burial

I would like to know why a Jewish person cannot be cremated. I always thought that the memorial service and the prayer for the dead states: “From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” If this is true, than why can’t a Jewish person be cremated and must be buried? Even a Yarmulke and prayer book, I have been taught can be disposed of by burying or burning by a Rabbi or one from a synagogue.

Thank you very much for your interesting question. There is a law in the Torah prohibiting cremation, from the time that the Torah was given to us as a people at Sinai. As a matter of fact, our Rabbis tell us that someone who has requested that his body be cremated, may not have his remains buried in a Jewish cemetery, similar to someone who has committed suicide. In both cases, a person has defaced his self that G-d has entrusted him, and had created in His own image. There is a Mitzvah to bury a deceased person. This is stated in the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:23) “And you shall surely bury him”. This is the 537th Mitzvah out of the 613 in the Torah. Additionally we find in the Prophecy of Amos 2:1 that G-d says that one of the unpardonable transgressions of the nation of Moab is that they cremated the remains of the King of Edom.

If a person’s relatives had him cremated, not at his request, the remains may be buried in a Jewish cemetery. However, there really is no Mitzvah to bury remains once they have been burnt.

I’m not familiar with the quote “ashes to ashes” in any classic Yizkor service. We do find in the Torah that Abraham pleads that G-d excuse him because (Genesis 18:27) “I am but dust and ashes…”, but this is clearly not referring to any after death situation.

I hope this has been helpful,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

2 Follow-ups »

  1. If a person asks for cremation can the family sit shiva? Why can a person that commits suicide not be buried in the main part of the Jewish cemetery?

    A person who decides to end his own life is considered by Jewish law to be a murderer, and, therefore, may not be buried in the main part of a Jewish cemetery. This is because we may not bury evil people next to righteous people, as this is certainly not respectful for the deceased that are buried there. However, Rabbinic authorities today have ruled that if a person suffers from depression or some other mental illness and takes his own life, he cannot be considered as someone who consciously murders, and the custom is to sit Shiva and bury them in the regular part of the cemetery.

    Comment by ATR — September 7, 2007 @ 12:45 am

  2. If a person is cremated as he wished, can the family sit in shiva?

    If the deceased was unfamiliar with the Jewish law prohibiting cremation, or if he never had a Jewish education and falls into the category of a “Tinok Shenishba“- i.e. someone who due to their upbringing cannot be faulted for a lack of adherence to Jewish law, it is permissible to sit shiva, but not required.

    Comment by ATR — September 17, 2007 @ 12:12 am

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