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On Cremation

Yizkor Passover, April 24, 2003

by Harold M. Schulweis

Our parents are living longer and with longevity comes vulnerability in sickness. Increasingly, we are faced with the awesome decisions "to pull or not to pull the plug."

For many families, the pain of such decisions is countered with denial. We will postpone the issue of the preparation for death and moreover, as some have said to me, "I don't want to play God." As noble as is that sentiment, we are all of us forced to play God in this world for we are partners with God and that partnership includes responsibility and decision. "Who shall live and who shall die" is not just a piece of liturgy. We are involved in that choice. It is we who, through our wisdom and tshuvah, repentance, or prayer or acts of charity "avert the evil decree." No one enjoys such confrontation and so the lazy response that many give is one of procrastination in silence and passivity.

But that delay, that muteness, that paralysis creates its own hellish existence. The time to talk about death and burial and funerals is when we are alive and lucid, when we are relatively healthy, when we are calm enough to make decisions.

Yizkor was originally recited on Yom Kippur. But since the 18th century, Yizkor became incorporated in the major festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Succoth.

Judaism is a realistic tradition and facing death liberates the family from fears and from superstition. In the 7th chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read, "It is better to go to the house of a funeral than to attend the house of feasting." And so, during Yizkor, we speak about matters pertaining to the unspeakable: We dare speak and think of death and dying.

The call came into the office: "You must see me." When he came into the study, he told me that his mother was in a coma and that he was conflicted. "I love my mother and I respect my tradition. Mom has always insisted that she wanted to be cremated after her death. About that she was adamant. On the other hand, I know that cremation is not sanctioned by the Jewish tradition. I have to make a decision: to honor my father and my mother or to honor the tradition." What is the traditional response? The answer is "No - there is to be no Shiva, no seven days of mourning, no Kaddish, no eulogy, and it is questionable whether the ashes should be buried in a Jewish cemetery. He was abashed. He was blunt: "This is my mother," he repeated.

I asked him whether or not he had ever discussed with his mother or with the family in general the question of the tradition. He said he had never discussed the matter. He, like so many others, thinks of Judaism and Jewish law like traffic signals - "green" means "go", "red" means "stop.” But rationale, explanation, poetry, philosophy of the rituals - this is not of great interest. In the study, I said a word of about - firstly, the Jewish attitude toward the deceased. The laws of mourning revolve around a basic Jewish principle: Kavod Hamet - respect for the deceased person. And this in Judaism involves a respect for the body. In the Greek tradition of Plato, the body is quite separate from the soul and what is important is the soul alone. But in Judaism, the body and soul are derived from a sacred source. As we recite in our prayers on Slichot, "The soul is thine, and the body is thine." And this plays itself out in the way in which we deal with the deceased. The way in which the way the corpse is not left alone, the way in which the casket is closed, and the prohibition against embalming and, of course, of cremation itself.

The pagan funeral practice historically was to cremate, to burn the body. We know that children were "passed through the fires" of the god Moloch in Valley of Gehennom, a practice fought against in the Bible. The Roman historian Tacitus noted that "Jews bury their dead rather than burn them." And an ancient midrash suggests that Adam and Eve, who had no guidance as to what to do with the body of Abel, slain by Cain, saw a raven scratching a whole in the earth, burying a dead bird in it. Following nature, they did the same for their son Abel. We also know that the Talmud in Sanhedrin rejects Serefah, burning, as one if the modes of punishment in capital crimes. The son in the study nodded. I added another rationale, which looks askance at cremation. After the Holocaust, the role of the crematoria in Auschwitz, Maidenek, in Bo Bovor made cremation even more unacceptable. For in cremating Jews the Nazis expressed their contempt for the Jew – for his soul and for his body.

I told him that many have expressed the special attachment to the last place on earth in which the human being was buried, the place where children and children's children may gather to recall the memory of their beloved. But do I remove from the mother's children the entire practice and meaning of mourning? I do know that a great scholar and Talmudic authority, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Specter ruled that there is no specific prohibition to deny the ashes a place in a Jewish cemetery, but what do I do? And I would like you, for a moment, to put yourself in my place.

A rabbi doesn't sleep and he doesn't let his congregants sleep either. Should I send him to another rabbi and get off the Halachic hook? Is that honest? For myself, I decided to conduct the service prior to the cremation and in the chapel. I decided to give the eulogy, for this was a mother who had many valuable and important traits and great love for her family. And I told the children that they should have a Shiva of seven days and nights, that they ought to recite the Kaddish for eleven months, because I believe that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to allow the children to be shamed and to have their natural desire to express their love in mourning for their mother denied. All the while I was thinking of the rabbinic and prophetic struggle against the verse, which claims that the sins of the parents are visited upon their children. That was repudiated in the Book of Deuteronomy and in the 18th chapter of Ecclesiastes. If the mother has sinned, how can I punish her children, deny them the Jewish right and rite to mourn her, to work out their grief? It's a matter of Jewish conscience and Jewish sensibility.

Dying is part of living. Death is part of life, and the Kaddish is about life. I think it is important, indispensable, for the family and for Jewish life, that we speak to each other with candor and honesty to determine how each of us wishes to be buried and to be respected. We have to know the law and we have to know how we feel about the law. That we recite in public and on a festival the Yizkor reveals the sense of realism of Judaism and it encourages us to face death and dying with dignity and wisdom. This is the time, and yours is the family that makes the ultimate decision - how we will live and how we die.

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Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784