My father, Herman Weisman, was a modest man, but also a man of passion, quiet courage and determination. He survived the pogroms in Russia, witnessing the murder of his father; he escaped from Russia with his mother and brothers; experienced deep poverty during the depression, worked long grueling hours while attending school; was an unassuming World War II hero; an actor, playwright and university professor. At the onset of my mother’s debilitating illness when we were all young children, he reared us alone, while caring for my mother, and pursuing a successful career.
My father, at age 93, was physically and mentally many years younger than his age. He wrote plays diligently, winning awards for his plays and having them performed in theaters in Washington, Baltimore and Manhattan.
On Tuesday, April 13, 2010, his life and ours suddenly changed. The woman who cooked and cleaned for my father found him confused, dazed and bruised on his head. The senior neurosurgical resident at Georgetown University Hospital painted a grim portrait of his condition (bilateral subdural hematomas or blood clots surrounding his brain) indicated that my father would live no more than a few hours. In fact, he survived for months, until September 5, the 26th of Elul, when he fell in the bathroom and died instantly.
How could this strange Aramaic chant, which doesn’t mention death, increase the merit of my father?
The more I learn about God and about what is truly real and important, the more I appreciate the sterling values my father gave to my sisters and me, and to our children. My father gave me the gifts of his kindness, his humility, his compassion, his courage, his endurance, his fortitude, his determination and tenacity to do what is right, his fierce commitment to justice, and most of all his love.
So how could I repay my father for the gifts he bestowed to me?
I knew little about saying Kaddish or its significance, but I read everything I could on the subject, and had many questions. How could this strange Aramaic chant, which mentions neither death nor mourning, be important in increasing the merit of one’s father? And what does this "increasing the merit" actually mean?
With these questions, I was determined to go to shul at least once a day for the next 11 months, to say Kaddish, even though my Hebrew was poor and I could not daven (pray) proficiently.
On a daily basis, I needed to find a minyan close to where I work at Johnson & Johnson headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I soon found Congregation Poile Zedek, a historic synagogue two blocks away from my office. The members were almost all Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.
That took care of the morning, and for the afternoon Michah/Ma’ariv, I discovered the Yavneh House of Princeton. Soon I was getting to know the regulars in each of these places, and the 2-to-4 others also saying Kaddish. My life began to revolve around Kaddish. I had to arrange my work schedule, travel schedule, and social schedule around getting to at least one minyan per day. Gradually I was getting the hang of each of the three daily services, but no sooner would I get confident, than I would be thrown a loop by going to a shul with a different style of prayer: Askanaz, Sephard, Ha-Arizal, Mizrach and Temani.
I felt a connection, a bonding, a closeness that seemed that both our souls needed.
Given my struggles in mastering the variety of services and the time commitment, I wasn’t sure why I was determined to keep going, but it seemed important. I knew I was on a mission to increase the merit for my father – though I still wasn’t sure what that meant, or whether I believed my daily Kaddish had any effect on it. But somehow it seemed right. I was doing something special for my father, the man who had given me so much. I was thanking him and appreciating him and giving him something that I was never quite able to do when he was alive. I felt a connection, a bonding, a closeness that seemed that both our souls needed.
Clarity and Connection
At the same time, I would feel doubts. Is this real? Where’s the evidence? This is foolish! But why reject something that feels so real, that inwardly I knew was meaningful and more real than the daily grind of the material world, where we seek comfort and gratification, but seldom achieve lasting pleasure?
Saying that Kaddish, day after day, I experienced the kind of pleasure that comes with the gift that God gave the Jewish people thousands of years ago, to be a holy people; the gift, privilege and responsibility to be a light onto nations; the gift of Torah, the guidebook that shows us how the spiritual illuminates the material – the gift that makes sense out of the apparent nonsense of daily life.
Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, on a business trip to Washington, DC, I went to Kesher Israel in Georgetown. The congregation and rabbi warmly welcomed me. It was an interesting crowd: students and faculty from Georgetown University, businessmen on their way to work, retired older men sharing the latest news of the neighborhood, politicians including Senator Joseph Lieberman, and sitting near me, a man with long gray hair wearing cowboy boots. I later learned this unorthodox-looking, orthodox man was Leon Wieseltier, author of the book Kaddish, a wonderful history of the mourner’s Kaddish and a personal meditation about the Kaddish experience, which I had just begun reading.
One of the earliest sources associating Kaddish with mourners is a story about Rabbi Akiva, who saved the soul of an evil man condemned to purgatory. This man had left behind a pregnant wife who gave birth to a son. When the son grew up, Rabbi Akiva took him to the synagogue to join in the recitation of Kaddish. Later the departed soul appeared to Rabbi Akiva and thanked him for saving him from the depths of punishment by teaching his son to say Kaddish.
The great Kabbalist the Arizal maintains that saying Kaddish helps to raise the departed soul from one spiritual level to even loftier levels of holiness.
This is not blind faith, but an innate knowledge that our sense of personal purpose, often elusive and hidden, can be revealed. When I acknowledged the importance of what I was doing, I gained an immense clarity and connection – even if I could not explain it to anyone, except my new friends, my fellow daveners, who needed no explanation. They were there for the same, deeply-understood reason – the same reason that our people have been doing the same thing through the centuries.
The peace and knowledge about what really matters went from ephemeral glimpses to a serene constancy in my life.
The peace, the knowledge, the understanding, the certainty about what really matters, went from ephemeral glimpses to a serene constancy in my life – whether I was at Chabad in Redondo Beach, CA; Young Israel in St Louis; Beth Tikvah in Naples, Florida – which didn’t have a daily minyan, but created one for me during the three days I was attending a meeting at a nearby hotel; and the small Sefardic synagogue in the Neve Tzedek area of Tel Aviv. And surely my favorite of the over two dozen places around the globe I attended during my 11 months of saying Kaddish was the Kotel, the Western Wall, where at any hour of the day I could find many different minyanim to say Kaddish.
The Final Kaddish
Then all of a sudden, it was over.
On my last day of saying Kaddish, the 26th of Tammuz, I said Kaddish during Maariv at Yavneh house in Princeton, Shacharit at Poile Zadek in New Brunswick, and Minchah at the Garment Center Synagogue in Manhattan, a few blocks away from where I was to give a keynote speech at a dinner event. There I was standing in the synagogue about to say the last Kaddish during my 11 months of mourning.
Aleynu, at the end of the service, was almost over. I remained standing. It was time.
Yisgadal v’yiskadash Sh’mei rabba…
I began to tremble.
B’allma dee v’rah chir’usei, v’yamlich malchusei…
I wasn’t sure I could make it through. My legs were weak. I felt like I was going to cry uncontrollably.
May God’s great name be praised to all eternity.
I stumbled through the next few verses of Aramaic:
Hallowed, and honored, extolled and exalted, adored and acclaimed be the Name of the blessed Holy One… May God grant abundant peace and life, to us and to all Israel. And let us say, Amein
I took three steps back on my trembling legs. Trying to keep my balance, I bowed left, Oseh Shalom bim’ro’Mav.
Bowed right, hu ya’aseh shalom, aleinu.
Bowed forward, v’a’ kol yisroel, v’imru Amain.
Three final steps forward. It was over.
I didn’t anticipate the sudden sense of loss, of emptiness, of deep sadness.
I sat down for a few moments, and then davened Ma’ariv. It was a blur. I don’t remember saying the Shema or Amidah.
Before I knew it, everyone was standing for Aleynu.
After Aleynu, the mourners remained standing for Kaddish. But for the first time in 11 months, I sat down, silent. Numb.
I spoke to the rabbi afterwards. He said what I felt was normal. The sadness will gradually dull over the next week or so, and life will go on.
My mission was over. It has not only been part of my life, it’s been my life. My mission, my deep, soulful connection to my father was gone. He’s gone. Nothing filled the hole that was growing inside me.
I walked slowly to the hotel in a daze. How can I possibly talk to anyone? How can I banter small talk during the cocktail hour before my speech.
I walked into the room. The organizers greeted me. Something surprising happened. A switch had flipped. The energy was restored. I was on again – talking, connecting, flowing. My father was back inside of me. It felt good to be in front of the audience. The tension was gone. I was relaxed, the words came out easily.
In the car ride home, I prayed. I thanked God. And I thanked my father.
The sadness was pushed away by the knowledge that my father was not gone.
Next day, I went to shul, even though I didn’t have the obligation to say Kaddish anymore. But I needed the warmth and the continuity. And the minyan needed me, the tenth man. I’m repaying all those who took care of me for those 11 months. I’m helping those who continue their period of saying Kaddish, and I watch the new ones joining us, some just as unsure of what they’re doing as I was 11 months ago, as they stumble through their first Kaddish.
I go because it feels good to join the generations of Jews before me who were blessed with the same traditions. I go because it makes the light inside me shine more brightly.
In the weeks following my last Kaddish, the hole inside of me opened and closed in unpredictable cycles. The sadness continued, coming and going, but gradually became less intense. And the hole gradually filled and stopped opening, just like the rabbi said. The sadness was pushed away by the knowledge that my father was not gone. He is with me today, with me every day. His values, his kindness, compassion, courage, endurance, fortitude, determination and tenacity to do what’s right, his commitment to justice and fairness, but most of all his love, is with me today, tomorrow and always. And I am passing these gifts onto my children, as they will to theirs, through the generations.
Throughout history, societies have adopted varying approaches to dealing with corpses. Some have buried them in the ground and some have cremated them. Others sealed them away in elaborate mausoleums with food and drink, mummified them, left them for the vultures, cannibalized them and done the unthinkable to the bodies of their loved ones. Presumably, most people simply followed their neighbors’ example in deciding what method to choose.
Since the very beginning of the Jewish people thousands of years ago, although many options were available, Jews have always insisted on burial.
Today, mirroring the developments in Western society, at least 30 percent of Jewish deaths in North America and Europe are followed by cremations, and the percentage is on the rise.
What is the cause of cremation’s increasing popularity? Here are some of the top reasons:
- Environmental concerns: Burial seems to waste land and pollute the environment.
- Mobility concerns: Kids don’t live close anyway. Why feel guilty about not visiting the gravesite?
- Discomfort with decomposition: Cremation seems quicker and cleaner.
- Financial concerns: Cremation seems — and often is — cheaper than burial.
As Professor Stephen Prothero put it, "whether to bury or to burn is … no trivial matter. It touches on issues as important as perceptions of the self, attitudes toward the body, views of history, styles of ritual, and beliefs in God and the afterlife."1
Because this decision is so important, it is crucial not to leave it until the rushed and stressful times of ultimate grief. Let’s examine the facts.
Environmentalists Are Not in Favor of Cremation.
Why? Simply because, contrary to common perception, cremation is bad for the environment.
Cremation uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuels — over one million Btu’s (British thermal units) per hour with an average cremation lasting between one and a half and two hours, sometimes more – a tremendous amount of energy at a time when, finally, society is realizing it needs to lower the use of fossil fuels.
Environmentalists admire Jewish tradition which prohibits metal caskets and embalming.
Furthermore, cremation released toxic chemicals into the air. The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2001 that cremations accounted for 32 percent of mercury emissions to the atmosphere in that country and a recent Canadian Study found the problem so serious that it recommended simply that "A crematorium should not be sited close to a neighborhood."2 Finally, there is plenty of land available for burial: When you crunch the numbers, burials in the U.S. use far less land per year than the construction of new Walmarts (187,000 square feet per Supercenter, excluding their massive parking lots). Even if all Americans were buried, it would take over 10,000 years to use up just 1% of America’s land mass. And, of course, Jews constitute less than 2% of the dead, and few cemeteries would last that long anyway.
So where does this misconception come from? Environmentalists are critical of embalming chemicals and metal caskets. They recommend what are called ‘green burials’ without the metal caskets or embalming – and openly admire the Jewish tradition which prohibits both. Environmentalists are against cremation.3
Cremation Does Not Solve Mobility Concerns
Modern mobility certainly makes cemetery visitation much harder. However, upon further reflection, things aren’t so simple. First of all, it is hard to find an appropriate place for cremated remains. Feels strange to have them in the house. Even when the children do find an appropriate place for the remains of their deceased parents, how long will they keep them for?
Until they switch jobs and move? Until they retire? What will they do with them then? And when, in ten or twenty years, they are no longer living independently, will their children want the remains? Will they take them? What will they do with the remains?
The point is that our homes and families are simply not designed for long term storage of cremated remains. At some point, they are likely to be placed in an inappropriate place, forgotten, or ignored. In all cases, the home option is only temporary anyway. Some choose scattering, however in many families, a child or grandchild will eventually develop a desire to visit the gravesite and re-connect with their loved ones who have passed on. Whether important to you or not, or to the deceased, scattering prevents any descendants from ever having a traditional gravesite to visit. Even in the cases where gravesite visitation will rarely or never occur, burial is the right choice – as witnessed by the case of Moses himself, when God buried him and then hid the place of his burial (to avoid it becoming a site of idol worship). Even when it doesn’t seem like there will be any visitors — the body is at rest, and has found a permanent home.
Decomposition: It’s Never Pretty (Skip this section if you get queasy easily)
Many people believe cremation is quick and clean. It isn’t. To quote Professor Stephen Prothero4:
"Think of the horrors … of the crisping, crackling, roasting, steaming, shriveling, blazing features and hands that yesterday were your soul’s delight. Think of exploding cadavers. Think of the stench of burning flesh and hair. Think of the smoke. Think of the bubbling brains. Then you will be gripped by ‘paralyzing horror’ at even the thought of ‘submitting the remains of … dear departed relatives to its sizzling process.’ Cremation [is], in a word, repulsive: ‘There is nothing beautiful in being shoved in to an oven, and scientifically barbecued by a patented furnace’ "
True, being eaten by worms is not pleasant either. I’m not claiming burial is ‘less gross.’ On a physical level, they are both pretty disgusting. Burial, however, is a natural process of decomposition that occurs to every human being. Cremation is loud, violent, and unnatural.
Cremations have the reputation of being cheap. It isn’t always so. When all the side costs and hidden costs are added in, "Sheri Richardson Stahl, director of Island Funeral Home in Beaufort, S.C., explained that, "Plenty of times, cremations are just as expensive as burials."5
There is one type of cremation, however, whose costs can’t be beat: direct cremation. In this type of cremation, a cremation company is contacted online or by telephone. They send someone to pick up the body, deliver it to the crematorium, and deliver to the bereaved family a small can full of cremated remains. Costs are often between $1,000 and $2,000. In an age of worldwide economic difficulty, direct cremations are becoming more common. That is unfortunate.
Here is why: For some things in life, it is certainly appropriate to find the cheapest solution possible. Times are tough, and we need to live within our means. However, for some life decisions we manage to find the money to do the right thing. For example, I will do whatever is necessary to send my children to a decent school, rather than "going cheap" and putting them in a bad environment. If a loved one needs a medical procedure, I will somehow arrange to make it possible.
Choosing burial is important. Even in the cases when it is more expensive. Here’s why.
The Meaning of Burial
When a body is buried, the ground is opened up. A tear in the earth appears. The gaping hole declares, "Something is not right here — there is a tear in the human fabric of life. Take note, world, don’t rush through this moment. Recognize the loss. Remember the life." When the body is gently placed in the ground, a new message is given — the calm return to nature, the source of life.
"After decades of denying our mortality, Americans are starting to accept, if not embrace, this fundamental fact of biology: that the natural end of all life is decomposition and decay. Instead of fighting it at almost all cost as we have for the better part of the last century — with toxic chemicals, bulletproof metal caskets, and the concrete bunker that is the burial vault, all of which will only delay, not halt, the inevitable — we’re finally seeing the wisdom of allowing Mother Nature to run her natural course."6
The earth, the dirt, is indeed "the Mother of All Life." The earth provides our sustenance, like a mother who gives birth to and feeds her young. And to it all creatures return, to begin the cycle once again. As British dramatist Francis Beaumont put it,
"Upon my buried body lay
Lightly, gently, earth"7
Returning the body of someone we cared for to the earth is a sign of love. Do we burn things we love? Think back to your first pet: “We burned the trash and buried the treasure. That is why, faced with life’s first lessons in mortality — the dead kitten or bunny rabbit, or dead bird fallen from its nest on high — most parents search out shoe boxes and shovels instead of kindling wood or barbecues…”8
The Talmud compares burial to planting.
Burial and cremation usually reflect two radically different attitudes, and two mutually exclusive ways of seeing the world and understanding our place in it. Decomposition and burning are vastly different from one another and, in many ways, complete opposites. Decomposition of a plant or living creature creates fertilizer. The intrinsic elements of the matter are not changed — rather they are given back to the ground. No wonder that the Talmud compares burial to a type of planting.9
Cremation, on the other hand, leaves only burnt ashes, its elements forever changed and almost entirely burnt off. Try burning a seed before planting it — nothing will grow. In choosing cremation, humanity shows its power, but to what end?
The message of cremation is to side with man as conqueror, using fire and technology to interfere with and control nature — rather than peacefully accept it. The message of burial is one of respect for the cycle of nature.
When burying the remains of our loved ones, we calmly return what we have received. Burial reflects the rhythm of the universe.
Furthermore, burial is a Torah commandment. Deuteronomy 21:23 discusses the rare case of an evil criminal who is put to death. Even in that extreme case, the command is given, "You shall surely bury him," teaching a general principle for all cases. The obligation to bury is so strong that even the high priest — who zealously avoided all contact with all forms of death — must personally give the dead a proper burial if no one else can do so. The Talmud, Maimonides, and the Code of Jewish Law all codify the commandment to bury the dead.10
The severity, repetition, and focus on providing proper Jewish burial in the Bible, Talmud, and books of Jewish law are remarkable, and hint at its important spiritual ramifications. Jewish mystical works do much more. They explain core concepts about cremation and burial that change the way we think about death — and life. In order to begin to understand the issues (a full understanding would require too much space for this article), here is a point of departure:
Who are funerals for, anyway? It sounds like a silly question, but the answer forms the basis of many decisions made at this sensitive time. Some believe that decisions made after death — for example, whether to bury or burn, and what type of service to conduct — are for the living. To give a sense of closure. To provide comfort. After all, the dead person is … dead. Whatever we do doesn’t matter to him anyway. He or she is already in a "better place." We presume that the dead don’t feel what is happening to the body, don’t really care, and probably aren’t even aware anyway. Mourning practices, then, are understood to be for the mourners.
The Jewish view is different. While providing comfort to the bereaved is central to Jewish tradition (and is crucial to mourning practices), it is not the only factor to be considered. The soul of the departed needs to be taken into consideration as well, and some questions (what is done with the body at the time of the funeral, for instance) focus almost exclusively on the needs of the soul, rather than on the mourners’ needs.
What are the (departed) soul’s needs?
When death occurs, the soul still feels close to the body.
In Jewish thought the body and soul are not enemies. The body enables the soul to dwell in this world, to bring meaning into daily life. Without the body, the soul could not fulfill its mission. Body and soul are partners, together for a lifetime. Since they are partners, the soul becomes attached to its body. When death occurs, the soul does not depart immediately. It still feels close to the body.
Jewish mysticism compares body and soul to a loving husband and wife. When a husband departs this world, can a loving wife immediately move on? The bond is so close that time is needed to adjust to the new reality. The soul, then, does not abandon the body immediately after death. Since it is confused and disoriented, it stays close to what it knows best — its body. It hovers around the body until burial, and shares in the mourning, going back and forth from gravesite to the shivah house.11
The soul is fully aware of what is happening to ‘its’ body.12 One way to understand this soul-knowledge is to consider that upon its departure from the physical world, the soul achieves greater closeness and knowledge of God, Who is the Source of all knowledge, and thus the soul shares in God’s knowledge of what is happening to its body on earth. This is why traditional Jewish funeral practices are marked by tremendous respect for the body — it is painful for a soul to see its body mishandled, abandoned, or defiled.
Traditional Jewish burial gives the soul great comfort, and provides the transition it requires to enter the purely spiritual world. Cremation, on the other hand, causes the soul tremendous — and unnecessary — agony. The soul cries out in pain as its partner, the body, is burned rather than caringly returned to its Source. The soul is prevented from gently returning to God, instead needing to go through a lengthy and difficult struggle to adjust to a new reality.
Despite Judaism’s great insistence on listening to parents and honoring their wishes, we can now understand why proper Jewish burial overrides a parental request for cremation: Once the body is dead, the soul gains greater closeness to God and therefore greater understanding. It knows what pain cremation will bring and what eternal meaning burial provides. Now, the real ‘parent’ – their inner soul – wants to avoid the pain and separation of cremation more than anything we can imagine.
To Die as a Jew
Finally, for thousands of years, Jews and Judaism have insisted on proper Jewish burial. Roughly 2,000 years ago, Roman historian Tacitus wrote that "the Jews bury rather than burn their dead."13 Even today, the Israel Defense Forces spends and enormous amount of time, energy, money and resources trying to ensure proper Jewish burial for its fallen. Jews will fly around the world in order to recover ancient Torah Scroll and give it a proper burial – and people are more important than even a Torah Scroll.
By choosing burial, we are aligning ourselves with Jewish history and the Jewish people. In our ‘last act’ on the planet, choosing Jewish burial means declaring, "I may not have been a perfect Jew. But I’m proud to be one, and I want to die as a Jew."
Adapted with permission from Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View by Doron Kornbluth (Mosaica Press, 2012).
1 Stephen Prothero, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 5
2 Veerle Willaeys, Public Health Impact of Crematoria, Memorial Society of British Columbia, 2007
3 For more on burial and the environment, see: (1) Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner, 2007; (2) Butz, Bob. Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Natural Burial. Traverse City, MI: Spirituality & Health Books, 2009; (3) Lubowski, Ruben N., Marlow Vesterby, Shawn Bucholtz, Alba Baez, and Michael J. Roberts. Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2002/EIB-14. United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service, May 2006, http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib14/; (4) Wikipedia, s.v. "Cremation." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cremation; and (5) my own Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View (Mosaica Press, 2012)
4 Ibid, p. 67
5 Molly Kardares, "Another Sign of the Recession — Cremation on the Rise," CBS News, March 20, 2009,
6 Mark Harris, Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (New York: Scribner, 2007), 186.
7 Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, The Maid’s Tragedy, ed. T. W. Craik (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), II:i.
8 Lynch, The Undertaking, 96.
9 Tractate Sanhedrin 90b and Ketubot 111b
10 Sanhedrin 46b, 29 Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 231, 536; Laws of Mourning, ch. 12, Yoreh Dei’ah 362.
11 Zohar 1:122b. Based on Kabbalistic sources, the Gesher HaChaim (1:117) outlines seven stages of departure: (1) Thirty days before death, the soul begins a partial separation from the body. (2) In the last hours before death, there is a further separation. (3) At the moment of death, the soul leaves the body and meets its Maker. (4) For the first three days after death, the soul is confused. It believes it will reenter the body and therefore stays closely attached to it. After three days it ceases trying to reenter the body, but remains confused. During the shivah, the first week after death, the soul goes back and forth from the grave to the shivah house. (5) Between shivah and thirty days, the soul rises in Heaven, but is closely attached to the gravesite. (6) Between thirty days and the first year, the soul rises higher in Heaven, but still returns periodically to the gravesite. (7) After one year, it stays in Heaven, except for a small part of it that remains connected to this world and its body.
12 Talmud, Tractate Berachot 18b; Tosafot, Shabbat 153a, s.v. "venishmato"; Talmud, Tractate Sotah 34b; Rabbi Aaron Berachyah, Ma’avar Yabok 2:25; and Menashe ben israel, Nishmat Chaim 2:22.
13 Talmud, Tractate Berachot 18b; Tosafot, Shabbat 153a, s.v. "venishmato"; Talmud, Tractate Sotah 34b; Rabbi Aaron Berachyah, Ma’avar Yabok 2:25; and Menashe ben israel, Nishmat Chaim 2:22.
With today’s high cost of burial – casket, tombstone, plot of land – many are opting for cremation. What is the Jewish position?
Judaism permits only burial. The source for this comes from the Torah, where God tells Adam: "You will return to the ground, for it was from the ground that you were taken." (Genesis 3:19)
This is reiterated in Deuteronomy 21:23 which insists on burial directly into the ground. By preventing a burial from taking place, one negates this mitzvah.
The body is more than just a physical shell.
The body is to be treated with great respect because it is through the vessel of the physical body that we have fulfilled our mission in life. The body is thus more than just a physical shell; it is a holy instrument.
A Jewish burial honors the body and treats it with respect. The body is watched over and lovingly cleaned. It is placed in simple white shrouds, and then in a coffin of wood.
Cremation, on the other hand, is destructive and denigrating. In the same way we don’t burn holy books, so too the body was a vehicle for the soul and should be treated with gentle respect.
Body and Soul
Upon death, the soul goes through a painful separation from the body, which until now had housed the soul. This process of disengagement occurs as the body decays. Burial allows the soul the time to slowly depart the body and to become accustomed to its new heavenly abode.
This decay is crucial, which is why Jewish law forbids embalming or burial in a mausoleum, which would delay the decaying process.
Jewish law dictates that burial take place as soon as possible after death. (In Israel, funerals often take place on the same day as the death.) Also, Jews are buried in a wooden casket, which decays more rapidly. All this is for the benefit of the soul.
One reason that Judaism prohibits cremation is that the soul would suffer great shock due to an unnaturally sudden disengagement from the body. As the Talmud says, "Burial is not for the sake of the living, but rather for the dead." (Sanhedrin 47a)
Biblical examples of death by burning are considered examples of disgrace or tragedy. (see Genesis 38:34; Leviticus 20:14, 21:9; Joshua 7:15, 25)
After the Holocaust it is imponderable that a Jew could agree to be cremated.
People think that cremation is antiseptic and wholesome. "One moment a body, the next moment a sealed urn of fine ashes." The reality of cremation is more accurately described as a carcass roasting in fire. (Think of the smell when you leave something too long in the oven.) It takes about two hours to roast a human body at 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. And then comes the grinder to make sure that the bones which were not reduced to ashes will fit into the urn. Brooms are then used to sweep out the ashes. (These brooms are not always cleaned well, so different people’s ashes are sometimes mixed together. Crematoriums actually have a disclaimer to this fact.)
After the Holocaust it is imponderable that a Jew could agree to be cremated.
What about the millions of Jews cremated in Nazi ovens? The Almighty certainly guarded their souls from needless agony.
Jewish tradition records that with burial, a single bone in the back of the neck never decays. It is from this bone – the luz bone – that the human body will be rebuilt in the future Messianic era when the souls of the departed will be reunited with their bodies.
The idea of resurrection is a fundamental belief of Judaism, as expressed in Maimonides’ classical “13 Principles of Faith.”
With cremation, that bone can be destroyed, and the resurrection process stymied. Thus the Talmud states that one who chooses cremation will not merit the resurrection.
These are very deep spiritual matters, and it is unwise to get swept away in trends. Although some may not believe in these Jewish traditions, burial is an insurance policy against mistaken belief. This is one decision which can have eternal consequences.
- Zohar 1:122b
- Jerusalem Talmud – Moed Katan 3:5
- Beit Yitzhak – Yoreh Deah 2:195
- Achiezer 3:72:4
- Maimonides – Laws of Sanhedrin 15:8
- Midrash Rabba – Genesis 28:3
- Mishnah – Sanhedrin 10:1
A crematorium recently opened for business in Israel, for the use of citizens who want their remains reduced to ashes.
A decade ago, just over 20% of Americans who died were cremated. In 2005, the rate had risen to 32%. The Cremation Association of North America confidently forecasts that by 2025 more than half of Americans will choose to have their remains burned rather than interred. While no one knows what percentage of American cremation-choosers are Jewish, there is little doubt that, at least among Jews with limited or no Jewish education, or who became estranged from Jewish observance, cremation has become acceptable, if not a vogue. And now, the Jewish State has it own facility for burning human bodies.
Yet the fact that the establishment is the first of its kind in Israel does bespeak an essential Jewish attitude toward the services it provides.
Some Jews recoil from the idea of cremation because the Third Reich incinerated so many of its Jewish victims.
Others, and many non-Jews, disdain the burning of human remains because of infamous cases where crematory owners, after accepting families’ payments, presented them with urns of animal ashes, turning a further profit from the sale of the bodies entrusted them to brokers who then conducted brisk businesses of their own selling body parts.
Judaism’s inherent abhorrence for cremation, however, predates and supersedes both Nazi evils and ghoulish crimes. The roots of the Torah’s insistence on burial of human remains lie elsewhere.
Judaism’s opposition to cremation is sourced in the Torah’s statement that humans are created “in the image of G-d.” As a result, we are charged to show “honor for the dead” by consigning human bodies, in as undisturbed state as possible, to the earth – even, if necessary, if it means forfeiting the performance of another commandment.
And then there is the related, fundamental Jewish belief that there will come a time when the dead will live again. Although the idea of the resurrection of the righteous may be surprising to some, it is one of Judaism’s most important teachings. The concept, the Talmud teaches, is subtly evident in the Written Torah’s text; and fully prominent in the Torah’s other half, the Oral Tradition. The Mishna, the Oral Tradition’s central text, confers such weightiness to the conviction that it places deniers of the eventual resurrection of the dead first among those who “forfeit their share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin, Chapter 11, Mishna 1). As the Talmud comments thereon: “He denied the resurrection of the dead, so will he be denied a portion in the resurrection of the dead.”
That our bodies are invested with such importance should not be startling. Not only our souls but our physical selves, too, possess inherent holiness. Our bodies, after all, are the indispensable means of performing G-d’s will. It is through employing them to do good deeds and denying their gravitations to sin that we achieve our purposes in this world.
And so, Jewish tradition teaches, even though we are to consign our bodies to the earth after death, there is a small “bone” (Hebrew: “etzem“) that is not destroyed when a body decays and from which the entire person, if he or she so merits, will be rejuvenated at some point in the future.
The idea that a person might be recreated from something tiny – something, even, that can survive for millennia – should not shock anyone remotely familiar with contemporary science. Each of our cells contains a large and complex molecule, DNA, that is essentially a blueprint of our bodies; theoretically, one of those molecules from even our long-buried remains could be coaxed to reproduce each of our physical selves. (Intriguingly, the Hebrew word “etzem” can mean not only “bone” but also “essence” and “self.”)
Burning, in Judaism, is a declaration of utter abandon and nullification. Jews burn leaven and bread before Passover, when the Torah insists no vestige of such material may be in their possession. The proper means of disposing of an idol is to pulverize or burn it.
Needless to say, G-d is capable of bringing even ashes to life again (as the ashes of the Nazis’ crematoria victims will surely demonstrate one day, may it come soon). But actually choosing to have one’s body incinerated is an act that, so intended or not, expresses denial of the fact that the body is still valuable, that it retains worth, indeed potential life.
The new Israeli crematorium’s owner, in fact, describes himself as an atheist, as do most if not all of his customers. One, a teacher in Jerusalem, gave eloquent expression to her reasons for choosing cremation, telling The Jerusalem Post: “I was not sanctified in my lifetime so my grave won’t be sanctified either… I believe that there is nothing after death…”
That is the philosophy underlying the choice of cremation.
It is the antithesis of the belief-system called Judaism.
In normal circumstances, children must respect their parents’ wishes. Parents say go to school, kids must go to school. Parents say go to sleep, kids must go to sleep. Parents say eat your vegetables, kids must eat their vegetables.
While parents must be very careful when and how to enforce their authority (better few commands which are obeyed than more commands which are ignored), and while many otherwise wonderful children tend to ignore this rule more often than they should (Hi, kids!), we understand why our tradition places such importance on respecting parents. It is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments, and represents our relationship with G-d. Someone who respects their parents’ authority will more easily do so with G-d. Someone who rejects their parents’ authority will usually have trouble accepting that ultimately, it is G-d who runs the world.
There are exceptions, however, and one of them includes going against a parent’s final wishes. If a parent instructs children that he or she wants to be cremated, Jewish law—which places huge emphasis on respecting parents’ wishes—obligates children to ignore the command and provide a traditional Jewish burial for their parents.
Who Are Funerals For, Anyway?
Things change when the body dies. The soul is released. It is immediately closer to G-d, the true source of knowledge.
It is a strange question, I know, but one that will determine many of the choices made at the time of death—and our entire understanding of this crucial spiritual transition point. If one believes that funerals are for the living, than do whatever the living want to do. Bury, cremate, leave the body for the vultures, mummify it, put it on a flaming boat down the river, throw it in the garbage, put in under your floorboards, cannibalize it, or do one of the many things that societies throughout the ages have done or do to the bodies of their loved ones. The soul doesn’t care, and probably doesn’t know anyway. It is in a "better place," and what happens to "its" body is really of no consequence.
But what if funerals are (primarily) for the dead? Consider this:
Each of us has a "part of G-d," so to speak, inside of us. It is the neshamah, the soul. It is pure, untainted, and closely connected to its source, the source of all knowledge—G-d Himself. Deep down, when we get in touch with our soul, we access this source of knowledge. We sense what is true, what is right and what is holy. But it is not easy to access that deep source of knowledge. Our souls are kept prisoner in our bodies. The body is not an enemy, of course, as it enables us to help others and fix the world. But it does limit the soul. Base desires, ego, fears and confusion make it extremely difficult for "me" to know what is really going on, what is really important and what path I should follow.
Things change when the body dies. The soul is released. It is immediately closer to G-d, the true source of knowledge. The "me" suddenly has much clearer access to Him. Still, the soul does not leave its body immediately. Could a loving wife immediately leave her husband after decades of loving togetherness? The soul stays close by, "ascending on high" slowly, stage by stage.
Immediately after death, in the very first stage of its ascent, the soul’s main concern is that "its" body—its partner over many decades—receive a proper Jewish burial. The soul cries out in pain if its body is treated disrespectfully, and screams in unimaginable horror if its beloved body, a holy vessel, is put to the flame. When the body is alive, the body feels pain. When the body can no longer feel pain—i.e., when it dies—the soul feels its partner’s "physical" pain at a highly spiritual level.
This is why children must disregard parents’ request for cremation. Now, right now, the parents know far more than they knew when alive. Now, right now, the parents’ souls are literally begging their children for a traditional Jewish burial. The child is listening to the parents’ wishes—their unstated, unrealized, true wishes.
For some situations in life, it is certainly appropriate to go cheap. Why not save money, especially in hard economic times? But not for all areas of life.
The question of what to do with the body of a loved one—or, when the time comes, one’s own—is not theoretical. Cremation is getting more and more popular today in the Western world, and over one-third of all Jewish dead in North America in 2011 were cremated.
Why the trend? Here are a few examples of the "conventional wisdom" . . . and some facts.1
- Cremation is better for the environment. Actually, it isn’t. Cremation uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuels, and releases toxins—including mercury—into the air. This misconception probably is caused by environmental opposition to embalming and metal caskets. Because of cremation’s negative environmental impact and modern burial’s problematic practices, environmentalists favor "green burial," with no embalming or metal caskets. Sound familiar? Jewish tradition forbids cremation, metal caskets and embalming—and our burial tradition is known to be eco-friendly.
- There isn’t enough land for cemeteries. Actually, there is. Living in urban centers and paying high rents, it is understandable why we feel that there isn’t any land available. But the numbers show just the opposite. Even if every American death was followed by burial, it would take over 10,000 years just to use up one percent of America’s landmass! And, presumably, few if any cemeteries would survive that long anyway. Burials take up very little land, and there is plenty available—usually within an hour or two of urban centers.
- No one will visit the grave anyway, so why have one? Actually, although visiting a grave is both important and beautiful, it has absolutely nothing to do with the obligation to bury. At the end of the Torah, G-d Himself buries Moses and hides the location forever (in order to avoid it becoming a place of idol worship). Although no one will ever visit his place of eternal rest, G-d chose burial over the multitude of options available.
- Decomposition is disgusting. [Skip this point if you are squeamish]. Actually, while decomposition is hardly a sight to behold, cremation hardly seems any better. Despite the advertisements, the process is neither quick nor clean. An average body burns in the oven for 1.5–2 hours, with bigger bodies lasting even longer. During the process, the body moves back and forth, crackles and sizzles. The brain bubbles. Think of the stench of burning hair and flesh. Once the oven (a.k.a. retort, chamber or incinerator) has finished its gruesome task, the remains are not yet "ashes." What is left in the oven are actually dry bone fragments. They are manually swept out and placed into a machine where they are ground up (a.k.a. pulverized, cremulated or processed) for about 20 minutes, in order to fit the remains into a small urn. The point is not whether burial or cremation is more disgusting. The point is that cremation is not pleasant—it is a loud, violent, repulsive and artificial process. On the other hand, decomposition, while not pretty, is a biological process, and the natural way of every living being.
- Cremation is cheaper. Actually, this piece of conventional wisdom is sometimes true. When all the hidden costs are added in, Sheri Richardson Stahl, director of Island Funeral Home in Beaufort, S.C., explained that "plenty of times, cremations are just as expensive as burials." Unless "Direct Cremation" is chosen. In these cases, a cremation company is contacted online or by telephone. They pick up the body and deliver to the family a small can of cremated remains. Costs are often between $1,000 and $2,000. Including the plot, no burial will be that cheap, and direct cremations are becoming more common.
That is unfortunate. Here is why.
For some situations in life, it is certainly appropriate to go cheap. Why not save money, especially in hard economic times? But not for all areas of life. For example, I will do whatever is necessary to send my children to a decent school, rather than "going cheap" and putting them in a bad environment. Similarly, burial is worth the extra cash.
As we have seen, burial is better for the environment. But the reasons are much deeper.
The soul needs burial, as described above. Cremation causes it tremendous pain, more than we can imagine.
Also, the body deserves burial. Note that Eastern religions usually require cremation. This is not surprising: they view the body as an enemy to be fought, and spirituality consists in separation from the physical. Their leaders are celibate and ascetic (think of the image of the guru on the mountaintop, completely detached from worldly life). According to the Torah, however, the body is not the enemy: I couldn’t give charity without my hands, speak words of prayer without my mouth, or run to do a good deed without my legs. While the soul must remain in control, the body is a partner, and deserves to be lovingly placed in the ground, not burnt like the garbage.
Finally, the Jew wants burial. No matter how Jewishly aware or active a person was during their lifetime, choosing a traditional Jewish burial declares, "I may not have been a perfect Jew, but I’m a proud one. And I want to be buried as Jews have been for thousands of years. I owe it my ancestors. I owe it to my descendants. I owe it to my body—and I owe it to my soul."
Explore more on this subject in Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View
by Doron Kornbluth
(Mosaica Press, 2012).
1 Sources and further information can be found in my Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View (Mosaica Press, 2012).
I’m in the process of making arrangements for my final resting place. In my family, some of my relatives have opted for a traditional Jewish burial, while others have chosen the route of cremation. While researching my options, I’ve discovered that Judaism is vehemently opposed to cremation. Can you please explain to me the origins and reasons for this stance?
Before I respond to your question regarding the background of the Jewish prohibition against cremation, allow me to make some prefatory remarks:
In order to help clarify some of the issues, I am choosing to explain the topic “as is,” i.e., as they appear in the “Big Books.” Commenting on the particulars of one’s experience may need additional questions clarified and is often best done in person with a rabbi more familiar with the particular person or family.
Commenting on the particulars of one’s experience may need additional questions clarified
Thus, if anything that I will write will come across as insensitive, I beg your forgiveness in advance. That is clearly not my intention.
The laws I will attempt to present here are a distillation of rabbinic writings over the years. In terms of some of the deeper reflection on the human body and its role that I hope to provide — that is distilled from deep Chabad discourses, though I can hardly assert that my distillation of this lofty concept is categorically correct.
Jewish law (“Halachah”) is unequivocal that the dead must be buried in the earth.1
As a deterrent measure,2 cremated remains are not interred in a Jewish cemetery.3 Furthermore, we are told that many of the traditional laws of mourning are not observed after the passing of an individual whose body was cremated.4 Kaddish, however, is recited for such individuals, and it is certainly appropriate to give charity and do mitzvot in memory of their souls.5
Responsibility for the deceased’s proper burial lies with the next of kin.6 While ordinarily Jewish law requires the deceased’s children to go to great lengths to respect the departed’s wishes,7 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.8 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 G-d.
These rules do not apply to an individual who was cremated against his will
[It is important to note that according to Jewish law, a person is only held accountable for his/her actions when they are done willingly, and with full cognizance of their implications.9
Therefore, all the above does not apply to an individual who was cremated against his will. After the Holocaust, many conscientious Jews gathered ashes from the extermination camp crematoria and respectfully buried them in Jewish cemeteries. Recently, too, I heard of an instance where a hospital mistakenly cremated a Jewish body. With rabbinic sanction the ashes were put into a coffin and given a proper Jewish burial.
Furthermore, 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.10 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 above.]
The Biblical Commandment
Man’s soul comes from Above, “He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life,”11 and when its earthly mission has been accomplished it rises back to G-d, returning to its source.
The body, on the other hand, was taken from the ground — “the L-rd G-d formed man of dust from the ground”12 — and must therefore return to the earth. This is expressed in the words that G-d tells Adam, the first man,13 “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
This concept is reiterated in Deuteronomy,14 where we are commanded to bury the dead: “You shall bury him on that day.” The Jerusalem Talmud15 explains that this requires us to bury the body in its entirety, not after it has been diminished through cremation or in any other manner: “You must bury him in entirety, not partially. From this verse we extrapolate that the command was not fulfilled if the person was partially buried.”
Cremating a body destroys most of the body, making burial of the flesh impossible, and thus violates the biblical command.
Our Responsibilities Vis-à-Vis the Human Body
In Jewish law, the human body belongs to its Creator. It is merely on loan to the person, who is the guardian of the body, but he or she has no right to deface it in any way.16 The body must be “returned” in its entirety, just as it was given.17
This general principle and law governs many of our laws, like those prohibiting self-mutilation20 or tattoos,21 and requiring us to do our utmost to keep ourselves from danger by maintaining proper hygiene and the like.22 This principle applies after death, too; any mutilation of the dead is prohibited.23
Any violation of the human body is considered to be a violation of G-d Himself
Utmost respect for the sanctity of the human body is also the overriding concern which pervades the process of preparing the deceased for burial. The funeral is scheduled for the earliest possible time, ideally on the same day as the passing,26 so that the body reaches its eternal rest as expeditiously as possible. The honor of caring for the dead is traditionally reserved for the most respected members of the community,27 who are expected to maintain the highest levels of decorum, privacy, and respect throughout the entire process.
According to traditional Jewish sources, the merit of facilitating the proper burial of a Jewish corpse is immeasurable. Even the High Priest, who was even prohibited from attending the funerals of his next of kin, was required to preoccupy himself and personally bury a met mitzvah, an abandoned Jewish body which had no one to attend to its proper burial.28
No lengthy explanation is necessary to conclude that there can be no greater violation of our legal and moral responsibilities to the body’s Owner than to cremate.
Delving Deeper into our Relationship with our Bodies
When the body becomes the soul’s vehicle to do good deeds (“mitzvot”) it – the body – is invested with permanent value and sanctity. The body is seen as sacred, as the temple of the soul, and the medium by which we do goodness in this world. According to Jewish law, an object which facilitated the fulfillment of a mitzvah must be accorded respect, and cannot be casually discarded. Examples: papers upon which are inscribed words of Torah, tzitzit fringes, or leather tefillin straps. Such articles must be buried with due respect.29 How much more does this idea apply to a body. In the words of the Talmud,30 “even the wicked among [the Jewish people] are full of mitzvot”! Or, to quote the prophet Isaiah:31 “And your nation are all righteous people.”
Judaism sees the refinement of the body and this physical world as the paramount objective
On a deeper level, as Jews, we believe there is purpose to life, purpose to this world, purpose to the act of creation.
There are other belief systems that view the body and all the other physical trappings of this world, and the temptations they present, only as strategic challenges set in the soul’s path, in order to overcome these challenges en route to a heavenly paradise. As such, the body has no intrinsic worth of its own, and once its function has been fully served, it retains no value whatsoever.
Jewish belief also recognizes the importance of the soul’s reward earned through its life-journey,32 but sees the refinement of the body and this physical world as the paramount objective.33 The soul was dispatched from its heavenly abode to infuse these otherwise mundane entities with holiness and purpose. While, the soul, too, is elevated to previously unimaginable heights through fulfilling its worldly mission,34 it is the sanctification of the physical — both the body and the world at large — which constitutes the very reason for Creation.
Click here for more on the topic of Body and Soul.
The Penultimate Bodily Experienc
Two of the most fundamental tenets of the Jewish faith are the belief in the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people — and of all of mankind — through a righteous messiah,35 and the concept of the resurrection of the dead, an awaited time when all souls will return to their bodies.36
These beliefs are so central to the Jewish worldview that Maimonides considers them to be two of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith.37
The Messianic Era will be ushered in by a righteous scion of King David,38 and will be characterized by world peace and harmony. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift the sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”39 The Jewish people will be gathered from all corners of the earth and will be returned to the Promised Land,40 where the Holy Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem.41
This era will be the culmination of G-d’s master plan for Creation.42 We will then be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor; we will then see the end-product of our millennia-long labor of permeating Creation with holiness and purpose. The curtain will be ripped aside, and the flesh, our very own bodies, will perceive G-d: “And the glory of the L-rd shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see that the mouth of the L-rd spoke.43
These beliefs have sustained our nation throughout a 2,000-year exile fraught with pogroms, expulsions and persecution. Just one generation ago countless Jews entered the gas chambers whilst singing “Ani Ma’amin” (“I believe…”) — expressing their firm belief in a better time to come, and their trust that they would be resurrected to witness that awaited day.
Cremation is an implied statement of rejection of the concept of resurrection
Cremation is an implied statement of rejection of the concept of resurrection. It is in effect a declaration that once the soul has departed the body, the lifeless body has served its purpose and now has no further value.44
Our Sages teach that those who deny the notion of the resurrection will not merit to be resurrected45 within their own bodies, rather their souls will be enclothed in different bodies when that awaited day arrives.46
Based on this idea, many authorities conclude that a person who opts for cremation is subject to this consequence as well.47
(However, this applies only to such instances where the cremation was done at the behest of the deceased; only in such instances can it be said that the person rejected the notion of the resurrection, etc. Not too long ago six million of our people were denied proper burial, most of them cremated. Without a doubt these holy martyrs will be at the forefront of those who will return during the Messianic Redemption.)
Additional Prohibition and Concepts
A. We are commanded in the Torah48 not to follow the practices of the non-Jews. Cremating the dead was (and, in fact, still is) a ritual observed by many pagan cultures, and thus is also a violation of this biblical prohibition.49
B. According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the soul does not depart the body immediately after death.50 Such an abrupt departure would be intensely painful for the soul. The gradual decomposition of the body allows the soul the time to slowly depart the body and acclimate itself to its new heavenly abode.51 The instant destruction of the body caused by cremation deprives the soul of this much-needed adjustment period.
Throughout our history, a traditional Jewish burial was always considered a highest priority
C. Throughout our history, a traditional Jewish burial, known as Kever Yisrael, was always considered a highest priority. During times when many of their non-Jewish co-citizens regularly cremated their dead, the Jews were distinguishable by their commitment to bury their dead with dignity. This fact was already noted by Tacitus, the famed 1st century Roman historian.52 Understanding the great importance of this mitzvah, the Israeli army is known to take great risks, venturing behind enemy lines to bring back to Israel the bodies of their fallen comrades.
It is safe to assume that the deceased’s soul is certain to evoke heavenly mercy and blessings upon those individuals who ensured that its body was accorded its final proper respects.
To sum up:
- is a transgression of a Biblical law to bury our dead,
- demonstrates a rejection of G-d’s supreme “ownership” over all of Creation,
- violates our legal responsibility to return what was loaned to us (our bodies) in as wholesome a state as possible,
- constitutes a rejection of the Jewish belief of tzelem Elokim (created in G-d’s image),
- constitutes a rejection of the Jewish belief in resurrection of the dead,
- (if done voluntarily, knowing fully the responsibilities) will cause the body not to be included among the Jewish People when the time of resurrection arrives,
- violates the biblical prohibition of following heathen practices,
- upends the soul’s natural separation and acclimation process, thus causing it additional untold pain,
- deviates from Jewish history and our forebears’ and contemporaries’ selfless and heroic efforts to properly bury our dead, and
- declares, in effect, that once the soul has departed the body, the lifeless body has no further value.
May we soon merit seeing the day when this whole discussion is rendered inapplicable, for G-d will “conceal death forever, and the L-rd G-d shall wipe the tears off every face.”53
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Rabbi Naftali Silberberg,
1 Code of Jewish Law, Yorah Deah 348:3; 362:1.
2 The rabbinic responsibility to institute ordinances to deter people from violating Biblical commands is referenced in Mishna, Avot 1:1; Talmud Yevamot 21a, based on Leviticus 18:30.
3 Melamed L’hoil Vol 2 #114 (Responsa of Rabbi David Hoffman, 1843-1921, noted German authority on Jewish law.) Whether or not there is an obligation to bury the ashes elsewhere, in order to prevent further disgrace, is the subject of dispute between halachic authorities.
4 This is based on the principle (quoted in the Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 345:5) that we do not mourn after individuals who have “strayed from the ways of the community” (Responsa Minchat Elazar vol. 2 ch. 34).
5 Chatam Sofer Responsa (by Rabbi Moses Sofer, 1762-1839, famed rabbi of Pressburg, Slovakia), vol. 3 (Even Ha’ezer 1) ch. 69.
6 Code of Jewish Law Yoreh Deah 348:2.
7 E.g. Code of Jewish Law Yoreh Deah 349:2.
8 Code of Jewish Law Yoreh Deah 348:3 (See Jerusalem Talmud Ketubot 11:1).
9 Talmud Nedarim 27a; Bava Kamma 28b; Avodah Zarah 54a; deduced from Deuteronomy 22:26.
10 Talmud Shabbat 68b; Maimonides, Laws of Mamrim 3:3.
11 Genesis 2:7
13 Genesis 3:19. This is also the reason why Jewish law advocates the use of a wooden casket which will fully disintegrate.
15 Nazir 7:1.
16 See Maimonides, Laws of Murder 1:4; Ridvaz, Laws of Sanhedrin 18; Shulchan Aruch Harav (by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) Laws of Body Damages 4.
17 Adapted from a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, dated 26 Nissan 5729 (1969).
18 Genesis 1:27.
19 See Genesis 9:6.
20 Deuteronomy 14:1.
21 Leviticus 19:28.
22 Maimonides Laws of Murder 11:5; Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 427:9-10.
23 Deduced from Deuteronomy 21:23. See Da’at Cohen – Responsa of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi).
24 The Talmud (Bava Batra 115a) relates: It once happened that a person sold his deceased father’s estate, and then died himself. The other family members claimed that he was a minor at the time of death and was therefore unauthorized to sell the property. The rabbis did not allow them, however, to medically examine the body to determine his age. “You are not permitted to dishonor him,” Rabbi Akiba said.
From here we infer that it is forbidden to modify the body of the deceased in any manner even if it would lead to tangible results.
The Talmud (Chullin 11b) also discusses the possibility of performing an autopsy on a murder victim to ascertain the state of the victim’s health at the time of the murder. The result of this autopsy could have possibly affected the murderer’s punishment. The Talmud objects on grounds of disrespect toward the dead and concludes that only in the theoretical event that the autopsy would actually serve to save the murderer (considering the premium Jewish law places on saving lives) would it be allowed.
See also Noda B’Yehudah Y.D. 210; Chatam Sofer Y.D. 336.
25 The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains in the previously cited letter (fn 16) that in those very rare cases “where an exception was made to the rule, it was because of special reasons, which in no way diminished the sanctity and inviolability of the body, as G-d’s property, but only because under special circumstances, G-d Himself has permitted certain isolated exceptions, in which case it is the Owner’s will that is being carried out, namely G-d’s will.”
26 Deuteronomy 21:23; Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 357:1.
27 Kol Bo p. 175; Hadrat Kodesh 3a.
28 Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 3:6.
30 End of tractate Chagigah.
32 Maimonides even considers the concept of the soul’s reward to be a principle Jewish belief.
33 Tanya (by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812, founder of Chabad chassidic movement), ch. 36.
34 See Likuttei Torah (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi), Deuteronomy 29a.
35 Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:1, based on Deuteronomy 30:3-5; ibid. 19:8; Numbers 24:17-18; and, to quote Maimonides, “from the words of the Prophets it is unnecessary to bring proof, for all their books are filled with this concept.”
36 The Talmud, Sanhedrin 90b-91b, brings multiple scriptural proofs for the resurrection.
37 Introduction to his commentary on “Chapter Chelek” in tractate Sanhedrin.
38 Isaiah 11:1; Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:1.
39 Micah 4:3.
40 Deuteronomy 30:3-4.
41 Maimonides ibid.
42 Tanya ch. 36.
43 Isaiah 40:5.
44 Achiezer Vol. 3 #72 (Responsa of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, early 20th century Lithuanian rabbi); Beit Yitzchok, Yoreh Deah Vol.2 #155.
45 Mishna, tractate Sanhedrin 10:1.
46 See Igrot Kodesh by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 1 p.142-153.
47 See Minchat Elazar responsa cited above in footnote 3
48 Leviticus 18:3.
49 See S’dei Chemed encyclopedia, “Mourning” entry.
50 Zohar I 122b.
51 Jerusalem Talmud Mo’ed Kattan 3:5.
52 Hist. 5:5.
53 Isaiah 25:8.
This is going to sound weird, but it’s serious. I have a friend who is a very intelligent, beautiful and articulate young woman. She is also a conceptual artist. She has now announced what she calls her “ultimate artwork”–she intends to sign a contract with a company that will cremate her body after she dies and compress her remains to form a diamond. She is selling the rights to this diamond, made of her body… Needless to say, I was horrified when I found out. What can I say to change her mind from doing something her soul and body may never recover from for worlds and worlds to come?
I have respect for your friend. She seeks immortality. She wants to transcend the limitations of a finite worldly existence and leave a lasting impression on the world long after her time here comes to an end. These are noble ambitions. But she is going about it the wrong way.
The Jewish mission is not to become a diamond after you die, but to discover the diamond within yourself during your lifetime; not to make your lifeless body into a work of art, but rather to make your life itself into a work of art.
Within your body, you have a soul, shimmering like a diamond in the deepest part of your identity. Your body temporarily encases your soul for the duration of your lifetime on this earth. The body can either be a hindrance to the soul by concealing its light, or a vehicle for the soul’s light to be fully expressed. It depends on how you live your life.
If we live a life of hedonism and selfishness, if our body and its cravings become the focus of our existence, then the diamond that is our soul gets buried beneath the body’s layers of physicality, and its light is prevented from shining. But if we live a life of purpose, doing what is good rather than what feels good–a life in which the desires of our soul overpower the demands of our body and we fill each day with acts of goodness and holiness–then the light of the soul is not dimmed by the body. On the contrary, the body becomes the vehicle for the soul’s light to shine. By refining our character, bringing light to those around us, and maintaining the purity and innocence of our soul, we become a living, breathing diamond, a divine work of art.
We are truly immortalized by the good that we do in our lifetime. Whether or not we see it, our every act of goodness and holiness makes an eternal impression. Even the most trivial act of goodness impacts the world for the better, and the positive energy we create through our good deeds resonates throughout the world for eternity.
Even if you have been neglecting your soul, it can always be polished and returned to its original shine. For a diamond may become covered in layers of muck, but beneath it all the diamond always retains its lustre. As long as you are alive, you have the power to change, to uncover your soul’s power and let it shine.
To make a diamond out of a dead body is no great feat. To make a diamond out of yourself while you are still alive–that is a taste of eternity.
AT a funeral directors’ convention recently, I wandered around an exhibition floor crowded with the usual accouterments of the trade — coffins, catafalques, cemetery tents, cremation furnaces and the like. Scattered among these traditional goods were also many new baubles and gewgaws of the funeral business — coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; "virtual cemeteries" with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded.
It is hard to know what to make of this wild blossoming of unconventional mortuary merchandise. Perhaps it is the creative expression of a society grown weary of the extravagant hearse-and-limousine funerals of the past and ready to experiment with less costly and more personal ways to memorialize the dead. Some funeral directors seem to think so and are responding like dazed Blockbuster managers outmaneuvered in a Netflix age, scrambling to stay afloat in the wake of new technology and cultural improvisation.
But there is another, more accurate way to understand current funeral fashions. They illustrate the sad truth that, as a society, Americans are no longer sure what to do with our dead.
Rituals of death rest on the basic need, recognized by all societies, to remove the bodies of the dead from among the living. A corpse must be taken fairly quickly from here, the place of death, to somewhere else. But no healthy society has ever treated this as a perfunctory task, a matter of mere disposal. Indeed, from the beginning, humans have used poetry, song and prayer to describe the journey of the dead from "here" to "there" in symbolic, even sacred, terms. The dead are not simply being carted to the pit, the fire or the river; they are traveling toward the next world or the Mystery or the Great Beyond or heaven or the communion of the saints.
And we are accompanying them the last mile of the way. Every generation re-imagines these images of what lies beyond this life, but what persists is the conviction that the dead are not refuse to be discarded; they are human treasures traveling somewhere and it is our holy responsibility to go with them all the way to the place of farewell.
Thus, funerals often involve processionals, sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate, a form of community theater in which we enact publicly the journey from here to there, thereby enabling both the dead and the living to process the reality and meaning of mortality. Historically, funerals have not simply been quiet times of reflection in secluded chapels but often have included noisy parades winding through the streets.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s body was borne on a mule-drawn sharecropper’s cart through the thronged streets of Atlanta, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy wisely and symbolically wore scuffed marching boots under his pulpit robe. "A good funeral," says Thomas Lynch, a poet and undertaker in Milford, Mich., "is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be."
Today, however, our death rituals have become downsized, inwardly directed, static and, as a result, spiritually and culturally impoverished. We tend now to recognize our dead only for their partial passions and whims. They were Mets fans, good for laughs at the office, pleasant companions on the links. At upbeat, open-mike "celebrations of life," former coaches, neighbors and relatives amuse us with stories and naïvely declare that the dead, who are usually nowhere to be seen and have nowhere to go, will nevertheless live always in our memories. Funerals, which once made confident public pilgrimage through town to the graveyard, now tread lightly across the tiny tableau of our psyches.
Even those mourners who, by will or habit, wish to take their dead to the place of departure often find their way blocked. Some cemeteries, fearing liability lawsuits from falls and the like, no longer allow funeral processions to go the distance to the open grave but encourage the mourners to leave the coffin in a faux sanctuary at the entrance. And many American crematories, unlike their European counterparts, are not designed to allow mourners to accompany the body all the way to the fire. Instead the dead must be dropped off, like a night deposit at the bank.
We hardly complain, though. For the first time in history, the actual presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional, even undesirable, lest the body break the illusion of a cloudless celebration, spoil the meditative mood and reveal the truths about grief, life and death that our thinned-out ceremonies cannot bear.
A corpse is a stark reminder that human beings are inescapably embodied creatures, and that a life is the sum of what has been performed and spoken by the body — a mixture of promises made and broken, deeds done and undone, joys evoked and pain inflicted. When we lift the heavy weight of the coffin and carry the dead over the tile floor of the crematory or across the muddy cemetery to the open grave, we bear public witness that this was a person with a whole and embodied life, one that, even in its ambiguity and brokenness, mattered and had substance. To carry the dead all the way to the place of farewell also acknowledges the reality that they are leaving us now, that they eventually will depart even from our frail communal memory as they travel on to whatever lies beyond.
"Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people," William Gladstone, the British statesman, is said to have observed. Indeed, we will be healthier as a society when we do not need to pretend that the dead have been transformed into beautiful memory pictures, Facebook pages or costume jewelry, but can instead honor them by carrying their bodies with sad but reverent hope to the place of farewell. People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living.
Thomas G. Long, a professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, is the author of "Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral."
My grandmother recently announced that she intends to be cremated. This disturbed me, as I know Judaism doesn’t allow cremations. She grew up in communist Russia and doesn’t believe in anything spiritual. She says there’s no difference between burial and cremation, the result is the same. What should I tell her?
I recently spoke to someone who attended a friend’s cremation. I was struck by her reaction to the funeral. She said that the atmosphere could only be described as awkward. Here was a group of people coming to pay their respects to a loved one. At the front of the room stood an urn. Try as she might, she was unable to make the association between her friend and the urn. There was no sense that honor was being paid to the departed — her presence was no longer felt.
Being cremated is unfair to the mourners. They cannot be expected to say farewell to an urn. They have no gravesite to visit. The soul has no resting place in this world. If your grandmother is willing to forgo the spiritual benefits that a Jewish burial gives her, at least she should consider the comfort a Jewish burial will give her family.
And as for the claim that the result will be the same whether she is buried or cremated, it is not true.
When cremated, the body becomes ash. When buried, the body returns to dust, and becomes one with the soil. There is a big difference between the two. Soil is fertile, ash is not. The soil allows new growth and further life. Ash is barren and lifeless.
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.
I have never met a family who regretted giving their loved one a proper Jewish burial. But I have seen the regret and pain caused by a misinformed decision to cremate. Think long and hard before making such an irreversible choice.
Your grandmother is a special lady. May she see many more years of good health, and may she always be treated with the dignity that she deserves.
I was in eleventh grade when my classmate lost her mother to cancer. We had been praying for her mother’s recovery for months, and we knew that the situation was getting worse, but somehow we never expected her to die. When you’re sixteen years old, death seems very far away. But one day, the phone call came. She had passed away in the middle of the night. The funeral was to be held at 6 pm that very evening.
I had never been to a funeral before, and the prospect of being in such close proximity to a corpse frightened me. With trepidation, I made my way to the funeral home. The night was dark and dank, and I shivered from the cold.
The funeral was every bit as painful as I feared it would be. My classmate, an only daughter who had been very close to her mother, was utterly devastated. The woman’s many students were crushed, friends and relatives wailed. Her husband gave a eulogy, speaking of his wife’s devotion to her family, describing her incredible attributes, attesting to the fact that in two decades of marriage he had never heard her raise her voice. I left deeply pained – and deeply inspired. This is what a woman can do with forty years of life, I remember thinking. And I went home and hugged my own mother very tightly.
* * *
I’m idly scanning the New York Times headlines when one pops out at me. “It’s My Funeral and I’ll Serve Ice Cream if I Want To,” it screams. Intrigued, I click, and start reading. John Leland is exploring new trends in funerals.
“As members of the baby boomer generation plan final service for their parents or themselves,” he wrote, “they bring new consumer expectation and fewer attachments to churches, traditions or organ music – forcing funeral directors to be more like party planners and inviting some party planners to test the farewell waters,”
And the line between funeral and party is getting increasingly blurry. Robert Tisch, who ran the Loews Corporation, had a marching band at his memorial service, while Estee Lauder arranged for waiters to pass out chocolate covered marshmallows on silver platters at hers.
One family held their father’s funeral on the 18th green of his favorite golf course, “because that’s where dad was instead of church on Sunday morning, so why are we going to church? Line up his buddies and hit balls.” Harry Ewell, who had worked as an ice cream vendor for many years arranged to have his ice cream truck lead his funeral procession, and had popsicles handed out at the end of the ceremony.
Others hold funerals in restaurants, bars, or country clubs. A client of Lynn Isenberg’s Lights Out service requested a funeral that would include a wild disco party atop her favorite mountain so her friends could remember the happy times they shared.
Cremation makes all this easier. “The body’s a downer, especially to boomers” says Mark Duffey, who runs the first nationwide funeral concierge service. “If the body doesn’t have to be there, it frees us up to do what we want.” So the body is reduced to a small pile of ashes and everyone can enjoy the party.
The Jewish approach to death and funerals could not be more different. One of the core beliefs of Judaism is that this world is merely a hallway leading us to the banquet hall – the World to Come. If this life is all there is, then it’s not illogical to want a funeral which will provide one last fling. But Jews know that we come to this world with a mission to fulfill, one that is entirely unrelated to the number of good times we manage to pack in.
The tragedy of death is the fact that it signals the end to our potential for growth. The Vilna Goan, a towering sage who lived in the eighteenth century, was reported to have held his tzizis and cried as he lay on his deathbed.
“How difficult it is to part from this world, the world of deeds,” he lamented. “Here, for a few pennies you can obtain the great mitzvah of tzitzis. In the World to Come there will be no more chances to do mitzvos.”
A Jewish funeral is a reflection of the tragedy of being able to do no more, as well as the realization that the person is passing onto a better place. A dead person is treated with extreme reverence. Burial is done as quickly as possible, and the body, dressed in pure white shrouds, is placed in the earth. While the soul rises to meet its Creator, the body is returned to the earth from which it was formed.
There are prayers and psalms to say at a funeral which underscore our acceptance of G-d’s righteousness even as we are overwhelmed with grief. Eulogies are given, describing the greatness of the person just lost, and exhorting those left behind to learn the lessons the deceased’s life embodied. The focus is not on the deceased’s hobby, profession, or favorite pastime, but on his essence.
As the funeral of my classmate’s mother showed me, a Jewish funeral can be an uplifting experience. It is not only a tribute to the dead; it’s also a wake-up call for the living. It reminds us where we will all ultimately end up, and causes us to wonder- what do I want said at my funeral? How do I have to live in order to merit a eulogy like that? A funeral teaches us that no one lives forever, and we never know how much longer we have with our parents, spouse, and children. It propels us to reprioritize our life before it’s too late.
But it’s nearly impossible for any of that to happen if the funeral is taking place on a golf course, with the participants primarily focused on making a double eagle, or if it is run to the tunes of disco music. Having a funeral that blocks out, rather than highlights, the truths about life and death, is a disgrace for the dead, and a lost opportunity for the living. And that’s why there will be no ice cream at my funeral.
Bassi Gruen is a licensed social worker, a professional writer, and the Editorial Director of Targum Press. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications. Bassi is the author of A Mother’s Musings, a collection of articles taking an honest look at the challenges and joys of motherhood. She lives with her husband, her children, and her dreams in Beitar Illit.
Sunday found me back again, besides my father’s grave. It was my father’s yahrzeit (date of death) and the custom is to return once more to the resting place of your loved one. As we stood, my mother, my sister, and I, an icy rain started to fall. Hard droplets began to pelt us. We did not budge. The words in our prayer books became wet and blurred, but we did not move. It felt as if the heavens were once again crying with us; feeling our painful loss.
Can it be that years go by and still the hurt is searing?
Beyond the pain, though, is this connection to a man who loved me absolutely for all my life. No matter how difficult his day, my father never lost his temper with me. I cannot recall his voice raised in sharp anger or in a fit of rage. When I was a little child, I felt as if he always tried to hear my words. He would tenderly call me ‘sheyfalah,’ little dear, and sooth my little hurts. As I grew, there was this beautiful, beaming smile that carried me throughout my teenage years and beyond. When there was nothing left to say, his warm, bright eyes said it all. "Everything will be okay — you are loved no matter what." No burden was too heavy, no hour too late, if it meant being there for one of us, his children. Years passed, and then it was his grandchildren who discovered the magic world of a Zaidy’s absolute love.
Our life together brought moments that I still think about and cherish. I want to laugh with him again; share dreams with him again, talk to him again, and have my children hear my father’s wisdom. I wish that my children and grandchildren could hear his soothing bedtime Shema before they go to sleep or treasure the simple moments he’d taught us to savor. They would feed challah to the ducks, color rainbows with scented markers, and giggle at life’s wonders together.
I wish that I could once again hold his hand and walk with him to synagogue, prepare a delicious meal for him, or help him with his hat and coat. I would love to have a chance to honor my father even for just a moment. When I read the words of grown children who live with anger and resentment because of their parent’s awful mistakes, I miss my father even more.
Even after death it is possible to maintain the lifelong connection.
If one has been blessed with a parent’s love and then the parent passes from this earth, is it possible to still maintain the lifelong connection? Of course we are all obligated to respect and honor our parents; it is one of the Ten Commandments. But how can I honor my father if he is not here?
Higher and Higher
I recall a recent shivah visit that I made, to a student of mine who had lost her father. As I sat down, she told me that she had only one question.
"I loved my father so much, how can I still honor him now that he is gone?"
I explained to her that there are ways that we can not only honor our parents, but even help them, as they now enter the World to Come. Once a soul leaves this world there are no longer any opportunities for the soul to accomplish and do mitzvot. Our Sages teach us that the soul feels pained and remorse with the realization that it is too late to rectify any misdeeds or gain mitzvot and achieve goodness. Facing judgment, the soul cries out, "If only I would have the opportunity to correct my actions!"
We who remain in this world can do a great kindness and show honor once again to our parents. (Though I am speaking about a parent; all these concepts apply to any loved one who has departed this world). Each time we do a mitzvah in the merit of the deceased, we help his soul rise higher and higher in the Heavens above.
Our mitzvot become our parents’ lifeline as we link our good deeds to their soul and they now benefit from our actions. We can create the ultimate connection. It is as if we’ve sent a care package to Heaven.
What Can I Do?
Our Sages have provided us with specific ways that we can help our loved ones gain merit in our daily lives. We can dedicate our actions for the soul through the following suggestions:
- Study Torah or ask a Torah scholar to dedicate his study to your parent’s soul (during the week of shivah, others study Torah since mourners are not allowed to study Torah).
- Tzedakah: Give charity or donate a Torah scroll, prayer books, or holy books in the name of your loved one to an organization, synagogue, or school. It is a good idea to have the name of your parent (or relative) inscribed inside the book.
- Acts of Kindness: Whenever you do a chessed, a kind deed, keep in mind that you are doing this mitzvah as a merit for the soul of your parent. This creates a great impact, for just as you have accomplished kindness, the soul of the departed will now benefit from God’s kindness in turn.
- Prayer: There is, of course, the holy Kaddish prayer that is said, during the first year (12 months) of mourning and on the yahrzeit. Kaddish proclaims our desire that the name of God be sanctified. When one suffers a loss and is then able to recite the Kaddish, he is publicly accepting God’s decree.This is considered to be one of the most awesome mitzvot — Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name. The merit for the soul is real and great.
- Embrace a Mitzvah: Choose a mitzvah and ‘put your signature on it’. It can be a mitzvah that your parent loved doing, or one that you would now like to take on. There are hundreds of mitzvoth to consider; such as helping children with special needs, visiting the sick, driving patients to doctor appointments, offering your professional services to those who cannot afford them, cooking and baking for families under stress,
Saying blessings before and after you eat, keeping kosher, honoring Shabbat, praying each day, and avoiding gossip and shaming others.
- Light a yahrzeit (memorial) candle in honor of your parent’s soul. Four times a year one lights a memorial candle, besides on the yahrzeit (date of passing) date itself. The holidays of Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, allow us the opportunity of Yizkor, remembrance. We light the candle at sundown and the flames burn for (more than) 24 hours. The flame of the candle symbolizes the human soul which is never extinguished. While lighting the candle, think about your loved one and say that "I am lighting this flame in the merit that my loved one’s soul find peace and attain greater heights in the heavens above."
The date of the yahrzeit also gives us added opportunities to help the soul soar higher in heaven because yahrzeit is a day of judgment for the soul. It is a custom to gather together and have a meal, a seudah, where we speak about the fine character of our loved one. We tell personal stories that relay his goodness, kindness, and integrity. Visiting the grave, giving charity, and studying Torah are all additional ways for us to add to our ‘care package to heaven’.