Jewish Cremation: A historical and cultural perspective on a controversial practice

Jewish Cremation: A historical and cultural perspective on a controversial practice

Jewish cremation is becoming an increasingly common practice, especially in the Reform denomination. While this so-called, progressive, sect of Judaism has been the first to break the mold, others are slowly following.

Naturally, any move away from tradition is bound to cause controversy. The following looks at the history of Jewish cremation, the reasons why it’s historically frowned upon, and the slow move toward its acceptance. 

End-of-Life Services and Jewish Cremation History

  • The reasons why burial is so important
  • Practicalities in the 21st century
  • Jewish cremation history to modern-day acceptance

The reasons why burial is so important

There are multiple reasons why burial has been the only traditional end-of-life service for many centuries.

The Jewish faith believes that the body is only on loan from God. Therefore, when a person passes over, the body is to be returned unadulterated, something that burial achieves. The process also follows the teachings of The Bible, such as those found in Genesis 3:19, Deuteronomy 21:23, as well as Rabbinic sources, including Sanhedrin 46b.

The passing of the soul from the physical to the celestial plane isn’t an immediate process. It takes place slowly as the body decomposes into the ground. Burial allows the process to take place without any discomfort caused to the deceased.

There is also the association of cremation with the holocaust, something that—quite naturally—is surrounded by some incredibly strong feelings.

Practicalities in the 21st century

Today, cremation is gradually increasing in popularity. This is down to several factors:

  • The lack of burial space, especially in towns and cities.
  • The cost and practicalities of transporting a body back to Israel (for those who’ve expressed a desire to end their days there).
  • The general increase in cremations throughout society as a whole.
  • The allowance of ashes to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, even if it’s not permitted for them to be interred.
  • The growing number of Rabbis who’ll officiate at an interment or, in the case of the Reform movement, preside over a funeral that culminates in a cremation.

Jewish cremation history to modern-day acceptance

While there is still much opposition to cremation, there is no direct prohibition in Jewish law against it. Indeed, some bible sources suggest that the burning of bodies was carried out in ancient times.

However, the practice of burial has been followed for millennia. It’s only recently that cremation has begun to become more common. The Jewish faith is not alone in its views on cremation—the Catholic faith only lifted the blanket ban on the practice in 1963.

The following diarize a brief timeline of modern cremation within Judaism:

  • 1873: A new machine for cremation was presented by an Italian inventor in Vienna.
  • 1886: The Rabbi of Livorno called a conference of Rabbis to ban cremation.
  • 1890: The Rabbi of Trieste called for his body to be cremated upon his death.
  • Somewhere between 1845-1890: The England Chief Rabbi stated that although there was no law prohibiting the interment of ashes, Jewish law opposed the practice.
  • 1905: The Hayyei Olam was published, in which the practice was condemned.
  • 1935: The Rabbis of Jerusalem issued a ban against handling ashes and banning them from being buried in Jewish cemeteries.
  • 1990: A Reform responsum wrote, “Reform Jewish practice permits cremation”. However, it went on to say that, because of the Holocaust connotations, it should be discouraged.

With over half of all end-of-life services in the Western world now being cremations, it’s probably only to be expected that this is spilling over to the Jewish faith. While traditions surrounding the ceremony remain the same as ever, it is, perhaps, only a matter of time before some new ones are created in line with the increasing popularity of cremation as an end-of-life choice

Ready to Discuss Jewish Cremation? History can be Honored even with this still Controversial Practice

At the Jewish Cremation Society, we understand the deep levels of controversy that surround this end-of-life choice. It can be challenging for people to find an unbiased source to discuss options, and this is the very reason we exist. 

We’re not here to judge or to try and push anyone into a burial or cremation choice. However, if you or a loved one wants to discover more, or perhaps a family member or friend has left instructions for cremation after their death, we’re here to listen and provide practical advice. 

The chance to talk it through and ask those awkward questions that you might not feel comfortable voicing elsewhere is hugely important, no matter what your views.

Discover more about us at web link and get in touch today for a discreet and confidential discussion.

Reach Out

Contact Us Today

(561) 609-1919