Judaism & Burial
Roughly two thousand years ago, Roman historian Tacitus wrote that ‘the Jews bury rather than burn their dead.’1
He was right. Throughout history, Jews have insisted on burying the dead rather than choosing cremation. Aside from tradition, there is a direct commandment to bury the dead:
Deuteronomy 21:23 discusses the case of a 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 reason is given as well, ‘for it is the shame of G-d that is hanging’. Leaving the criminal on the gallows shames G-d in whose image he is created. Providing burial is respecting the image of G-d – represented by man – who is the purpose of all creation 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.2
Lack of burial, (whether through cremation or any other method of disposal), is considered a disgrace to the deceased, humanity, and God. Jewish tradition3 is clear that cremation is a severe prohibition, and is, in fact, the antithesis of the aforementioned commandment and a direct transgression of Judaism.
Jewish tradition rejects cremation so unambiguously that, as a deterrent measure, cremated remains were historically not allowed in Jewish cemeteries.4 In a similar vein, traditionally, one of the first things a new Jewish community does is set up a cemetery and burial society — making sure that proper Jewish burial is available to all.
Interestingly, the Torah discusses complex concepts in only a few words, being very succinct, yet emphasizes burial repeatedly. Far from being silent on burial, our tradition seems to overemphasize it: evidently, this idea is important.
Cremation rates among Jews today might be much lower if people were aware of how important burial is to Judaism. Cremation has existed as an option for thousands of years — and yet both Jews and Judaism rejected it, generation after generation.
Society’s views on burial and cremation have changed several times and no doubt will change again. Fads come and fads go. The Jewish view hasn’t changed: In an ancient world in which criminals were mutilated and left to the dogs, Judaism said that every human being is created in the image of God — and must be respectfully buried.
In this final choice, by opting for burial, we align ourselves with our tradition and stand firm with the many millions of Jews throughout history who insisted on proper Jewish burial for themselves and their loved ones.
1 Tacitus, Histories 5:5.
2 Sanhedrin 46b, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 231, 536; Laws of Mourning, ch. 12, Yoreh Dei’ah 362.
3 Tractate Sanhedrin 46b and other sources mentioned here..
4 Melamed L’ho’il 2:114. Also, many of the laws of mourning are not to be observed for someone who deliberately chose cremation.