Cremation has become very popular. The perception that cremation is “quick and clean,” ecofriendly, and less expensive than a burial has led to more cremations than ever. The perception is that the choice between cremation and burial is religiously neutral. These perceptions are largely inaccurate.
The cremation process entails burning the body for two hours in ovens that reach 1,700 degrees, pulverizing the bones that remain, sweeping out the ashes, which may be mixed with the ashes of the previous users, and placing them into an urn. It may be “quick,” but it certainly isn’t “clean.” Nor is it environmentally sound. The amount of BTUs (British thermal units) used during this energy-intense process and the harsh chemicals used actually make cremation an environmental hazard. Crematoria are not allowed in areas where people live. The quality of the air that combines harsh chemicals and burned human remains is both unhealthy and unpleasant. Cremation is often less expensive than a burial, but even that isn’t always the case.
The perception that cremation is religiously neutral is completely inaccurate. Indeed, the main reason to choose a burial is because the Torah instructs us to do so: “You will return to the earth, for it is from the earth that you were taken” (Gen. 3:19). If the mitzvah to bury the deceased isn’t sufficient, we should remember that God is also our creator, and when God instructs us to bury the body in the ground, it is because that is what is best for the soul. We believe in God, that we have souls that transcend our physical existence, that the souls enter another dimension (the world to come after death), and that the great pleasure in the next world is being in God’s Divine presence. Is there any room to doubt that God’s instruction regarding the treatment of a body is the correct one?
We have other reasons to refuse the cremation option. Rabbinic commentators suggest that one of the categories of people who won’t be resurrected in the future are people who chose to be cremated. This is a little surprising because that short list of people who won’t be resurrected includes major sinners and people who did things that are truly awful, and being cremated would not seem to fit on that list. The rabbis explain that by choosing to be cremated, a person demonstrates that he or she doesn’t believe in the afterlife and resurrection, the time when the body will return. If they don’t believe it, they won’t live in it.
One of the most important mitzvot in the Torah is to honor your parents—it is in the Ten Commandments. We are required to live our lives in this manner, from the time we are old enough to understand the concept until our parents pass away. Even after they die, we treat the body with respect and have a dignified funeral. Does it make sense that after many decades of meticulously honoring your parents, we have their remains burned and pulverized? The Nazis did exactly this during the Holocaust. Cremation is the height of disrespect. Even if a burial wasn’t an explicit requirement, cremation would still be very inappropriate.
What if your father instructed you to have him cremated? Isn’t listening to your father’s request honoring your parents? Let me answer that with a true story. A few years ago someone bought a used desk for two hundred dollars. To get the large desk into his house, he had to take it apart, and while doing so an envelope with five thousand dollars popped out. He gave the money back to the seller, reasoning that while people may sell old desks for two hundred dollars, the owner would never have done so if he knew the true value of the desk. People are not fully educated about the spiritual cost of cremation, nor are they fully educated about the great value of human dignity. The father who requested cremation now knows the truth, and he will be happy if you don’t listen to him.