Question: My father has asked to be cremated when he dies. My two sisters and I each want to have his ashes scattered in our gardens, so we are thinking of dividing his ashes between the three of us.
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
Cremation is strictly prohibited by Jewish law. It is seen as an act of violence to the human form and a sign of deep disrespect for the body that once housed a Godly soul. The Bible is clear about how to treat a human corpse: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
It is difficult to decide what to do when a loved one, a parent no less, instructs a child to cremate his remains. Honouring one’s parents and a dying person’s request are significant mitzvot but they cannot be achieved at the expense of violating the Torah’s insistence on burial.
If, for whatever reason, a Jew is cremated, what is to be done with the ashes?
There is no doubt that in a case where a Jew was cremated against his or her will, such as during the Holocaust, the ashes, if retrieved, are to be treated to a proper Jewish burial in a Jewish cemetery. The question arises when a Jew decided to be cremated in direct violation to Jewish law. Do we penalise the family by not allowing them to inter the ashes in a Jewish cemetery as a deterrent to others? Or do allow for the interment because, despite breaching Jewish tradition and sensibility by opting for cremation, the deceased as a Jew still deserves to rest with his people? And if we opt to allow for a burial in a Jewish cemetery, does it involve prayers? What about an officiating rabbi?
These are not new questions. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, a late 19th-century leading German halachist, addressed this dilemma in a lengthy and nuanced responsum (Melamed Leho’eil II Yoreh De’ah 114). He makes an important distinction between the responsibility of the community to inter the ashes — of which there is none — and the right of the family to inter them, which he upholds.
His solution is therefore to allow the family access to the cemetery and to permit the recitation of prayers and Kaddish at the interment. He also permits individual members of the community, even members of the burial society, to assist in the burial of the ashes. However, he was not prepared to allow a rabbi to officiate, as that would be a step too far in condoning cremation. Today, however, Orthodox cemeteries, at least in this country, are not as accommodating as Rabbi Hoffman. The result is that what you do with your father’s ashes in the UK is sadly beyond the framework of an Orthodox Jewish response.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
Within Reform and Liberal synagogues, cremation is seen as a normative alternative to burial.
Cremation is recorded in the Bible, but was later viewed negatively in Jewish tradition. This was partly because it was considered disrespectful, whereas nowadays a cremation is conducted with the utmost decorum and the actual service is exactly the same as at a burial.
It was also held that burning a body would prevent the person being resurrected in the messianic age — an important tenet of Orthodoxy and part of its daily liturgy — but Progressive Judaism does not believe in the physical resurrection of the dead and instead talks of a spiritual afterlife.
So cremation is seen as an option for those who so wish, with many people having a strong preference either way for a range of personal reasons; it is up to the choice of each individual.
Ashes are normally scattered in the garden of memorial at the local crematorium, or placed in a wall of remembrance. Your idea of dividing the ashes makes perfect sense on one level (he was important to all three of you) but on another level feels odd (splitting a person into bits).
I also have reservations about scattering ashes in your gardens, as that brings problems when you eventually sell the properties and move elsewhere. Will you feel guilty about “leaving Dad behind” and go through a second bereavement long after he died?
Part of the pain of confronting death is saying goodbye and letting go. Our natural instinct is to avoid this and to try to cheat death in some way, but it is probably healthier to face the pain, work through it, emerge saddened but intact, and move on into the stream of life.
My instinct, therefore, is for the three of you to agree a place that is separate from your own homes where his ashes can be buried or scattered. It might be a woodland he loved or somewhere near where he was born, any place which would be both appropriate to his life and helpful for your image of him.
You might also wish to consult him, and may find that he has an opinion that solves the problem. Some relatives are reluctant to raise a delicate subject, but often the person concerned has long been thinking about it privately and welcomes a chance to talk about it.