I was recently asked by a dying Jew to say appropriate words at this person's funeral. Once I realized that this would follow cremation, my choices were limited, since Jewish law prohibits participation in a ceremony surrounding cremation.
Cremation is not unknown in the Jewish community. As a rabbi, I try to spread knowledge of the Jewish law so that decisions relating to cremation and other life-cycle events can be based on Jewish law.
The Torah is vehemently opposed to cremation.
I explained to my dying friend that since the human body belongs to its creator, any violation of it is considered to be a violation of God himself.
Jewish burial expresses our respect for the body and our belief in life beyond death. In death, the body deserves to be treated with reverence so that the soul can return to the body that it once inhabited when Moshiach, "the messiah," arrives.
When cremated, the body becomes ash, but when the body is buried, it returns to dust, and becomes one with the soil. The soil allows new growth and further life. Ash is barren and lifeless, so turning the body to ash is unnatural. But the gradual process of returning to the soil is true to the inner meaning of death. The passing of one generation allows the sprouting of another, and the living are nourished and inspired by the legacy of the dead. Our forebears are the soil from which we sprout. Even in their death, they are a source of life.
A bigger problem, though, is that cremation is a rejection of the concept of resurrection. It shows that the lifeless body has served its purpose and now has no further value. Belief in the resurrection of the dead is counted by Maimonides, a pre-eminent medieval Jewish philosopher and the first person to write a systematic code of all Jewish law, as one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith. The Mishnah, or "Code of Jewish Law," declares denial of this principle to be heresy.
From a practical standpoint, being cremated is unfair to mourners. There is no gravesite to visit. A Jewish burial with the body brings a measure of comfort to the family. Without a Jewish burial and body, the soul has no resting place in this world.
A family will never regret giving their loved one a proper Jewish burial. However, I have seen in families the regret and pain caused by a misinformed decision to cremate.
Through the years, I have found that people's decisions are influenced toward a traditional Jewish burial when they learn the facts about and meanings behind Jewish customs and practices.
Rabbi Zvi Konikov is director of Chabad of the Space and Treasure Coasts, 1190 A1A, Satellite Beach. He can be reached at contact@jewish brevard.com.