In 1973 Woody Allen starred in Sleeper, an American futuristic science-fiction comedy film. The plot involves the adventures of the owner of a health food store who is cryogenically frozen in 1973 and defrosted 200 years later in an ineptly led police state. Since then what was science fiction has become, at least in part, reality, as people are now being cryogenically frozen, although no one has yet been brought back to life.
Last month cryogenics hit the headlines in Britain with the release of a High Court ruling that gave a 14-year-old girl, shortly before her death, the historic right to have her wishes respected and her body preserved. The girl, who was terminally ill with a rare cancer, was supported by her mother in her desire to be cryogenically preserved, but not by her father. She wrote, “I think being cryopreserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up — even in hundreds of years’ time… I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up.”
Simon Woods, an expert in medical ethics from Newcastle University, thinks the whole idea remains science fiction. For those who have died of a serious disease but pin their hopes of resuscitation through cryopreservation, he points out “the person is in a pretty bad state of health to begin with, and there’s absolutely no scientific evidence that the person could be brought back to life.”
From the point of Jewish law, the Torah places great emphasis on being buried in the ground. Of course, where this is beyond a person’s control, such as in the case of the Holocaust, this does not count against the deceased in any way. But where it is within a person’s control, alternative to burial is forbidden.
The Torah states, “Do not delay…you shall surely bury the deceased” (Deuteronomy 21:23). The anonymous 13th-century author of Sefer Hachinuch explains that there are actually two Torah requirements which can be deduced from this verse (Mitzvot 536-7). One is the positive commandment to bury a body as soon as possible and the other is the prohibition not to delay the burial.
The same view is shared by Nachmanides, who adds that in Israel there is an additional third prohibition incurred namely, “Do not defile the land with ritual impurity”.
Cryogenics does not adhere to these requirements since halachah determines that true burial must be in the ground (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 362). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading 20th-century American authority, spoke harshly against those who opt not to be interred appropriately in the ground but instead are laid to rest in a mausoleum (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:143-4).
In Israel, the common practice is to avoid coffins altogether — although this is not customary in the UK — or at least to drill some holes in coffins to ensure there is some direct contact with the earth (Tur, Yoreh Deah 362).
I have always been averse to museums which display unearthed mummified humans in glass showcases. The deceased deserve to be left undisturbed and in dignity.
There are three further points to consider. According to the kabbalistic teachings of the Zohar, we are taught that “during the week of shivah the soul is in a state of confusion. It is travelling back and forth from its house to its grave and from the grave to its house and mourns for its body. After seven days, the soul travels up to a different level of the heavens.” This process only happens when a person is buried.
Moreover, through decomposition of the body, the soul gains atonement and is in pain until then, an idea which is based on the verse in Job: “He feels only the pain of his own flesh, and he mourns only for his own soul” (14:22).
Furthermore, it is customary to bury the dead person in linen shrouds. Rabbi Avraham Eisentat, the author of Pitchei Teshuvah in the 19th century, quotes a midrash that a person should have shrouds made specifically from linen since for mystical reasons this is considered meritorious for the deceased (Yalkut Reuveini Mikketz).
None of these considerations is met through cryogenics. Additionally, Orthodox Judaism believes in the resurrection of the dead (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1 and Talmud Brachot 15b), so being cryogenically frozen may be interpreted as denying that belief. Why take the law into your own hands when you may merit coming back anyway?
Rabbi Levy is director of inReach UK