Religious funerals: why Jews bury their dead

Charles 5 Comments
Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson

The first crematorium to be opened in London, in 1902, is directly opposite Golders Green Jewish Cemetery, opened in 1895. Apart from their Hoop Lane location, they share little in common. Traditional Jews, like traditional Christians and Muslims, believe in burial: and burial only in a Jewish cemetery, with a funeral at which only fellow Jews handle the body, carry the coffin and fill the grave. While Jews, like Christians, are free to lapse and go with the relativist secular flow, orthodox Jewish teaching is absolutely clear on this, whether or not it seems counter-cultural in modern liberal society.

‘Earth you are, and to earth you will return,’ were God’s words to Adam in Genesis. Jews believe the body’s natural decomposition in the earth, the source of all life, is directly commensurate with the soul’s ability to return to its divine root. They hold that the soul does not depart the body immediately, meaning incineration in a furnace would be spiritually traumatic: the soul is in an in-between state when it has no body with which to relate to the world, and is not yet free of its tenuous bonds.

This belief contrasts with the more pragmatic view, held by Buddhists and atheists alike, that upon death what is left is only matter and how remains are treated is of no consequence to the well being of the departed.

As a deterrent to cremation, ashes should not be interred in a Jewish cemetery, and the bereaved are even encouraged to go against the wishes of the deceased if contrary to tradition. Scholarly Rabbi Naftali Silberberg says: ‘While ordinarily Jewish law requires the deceased’s children to go to great lengths to respect the departed’s wishes, if someone requests to be cremated or buried in a manner which is not in accordance with Jewish tradition, we nevertheless provide him/her with a Jewish burial’.

By way of justification, he explains: ‘It is believed that since the soul has now arrived to the World of Truth it surely sees the value of a proper Jewish burial, and thus administering a traditional Jewish burial is actually granting what the person truly wishes at the moment.

‘Furthermore, if anyone, all the more so your father and mother, asks you to damage or hurt their body, you are not allowed to do so. For our bodies do not belong to us, they belong to God’.

The belief that the body is a sacred vessel for the soul, and simply on loan from God, is complemented by the belief that Man was created in God’s image, further strengthening the case against bodily mutilation. These two reasons combine to explain why religious Jews oppose tattoos and piercings, and autopsies and embalming which violate the body’s completeness, defacing it so it cannot be returned in its entirety, as it was given.

As with most laws, there are, however, exceptions. ‘After the Holocaust, many conscientious Jews gathered ashes from the extermination camp crematoria and respectfully buried them in Jewish cemeteries,’ says Silberberg.

He adds: ‘An individual who was raised in a non-religious atmosphere and was never accorded a proper Jewish education cannot be held responsible for his or her lack of observance. This general rule applies to individuals who opt to be cremated because their education and upbringing did not equip them with the knowledge necessary to make an informed choice in this area. This assumption impacts some of the legal results presented’.

While no one would deny the victims of the Nazi death camps the funeral of their faith, some might find the latter clause perhaps offers ‘wriggle room’ too far. Religious doctrine is full of such dilemmas which, on the one hand, demonstrate compassion but, on the other hand, dilute and contradict the absolutes of orthodoxy. If an unschooled Jew is, as a consequence, lapsed, should he/she have a Jewish funeral anyway? And would he/she, and the bereaved family, expect or demand one? When posed with such a question, people invariably ask, ‘What would God say?’

Footnote: The death last year of tattooed Jewish-lite pop star Amy Winehouse illustrates the reality of religious compromise. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium after a Jewish funeral service, and her remains are buried at Edgewarebury Jewish Cemetery.

Next week: Hindu funerals


  1. Charles

    The words: ‘incineration being spiritually traumatic’ caught my attention because throughout my time at Glynn Valley the act of ‘charging the coffin’ was, in my opinion, without due respect on a good number of occasions – ‘Drowning Pool’ being an inappropriate recording to accompany an 84 year old.

    Who is to say whether there remains a residual consciousness?; I think that cremators need to proceed on the assumption of there being a transiting soul – perhaps a few gentle words would assist.

  2. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson

    Have you been on the whisky, Charles? Oh I see, you’re referring to the wise and humane Richard Newman!

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