The question of Jewish cremation has been considered for thousands of years. Guidance on this topic comes from the Torah and additional rabbinic writings from over the centuries. As with the interpretation of many customs, Jewish views on cremation can vary. In recent years, more Jews are choosing cremation than in the past.
Below, we’ll answer some common questions about Judaism and cremation and explain the changing trends that are taking place.
This information has been reviewed by Jamie Sarche, director of pre-planning at a funeral home that has been serving the Jewish community and beyond for almost 90 years.
Do Jews believe in cremation?
For millennia, it has been understood that Jewish memorial customs require a body to be buried after death. There are several places in the Torah that reference burial. Additional rabbinic writings specify the practices regarding how a body ought to be buried.
In Judaism, the human body is considered the property of God, and it’s forbidden to defile it, which some believe burning by cremation would do. In the Jewish mystical tradition, the process of being buried and placed in the earth leads to a gradual separation of the soul from the body, rather than an immediate separation implied by having the remains cremated. Additionally, some people are opposed to cremation because the Nazis murdered and cremated millions of Jews during the Holocaust.
However, even though it’s not typical, some Jews choose cremation. As cremation has become more popular in mainstream society, surpassing traditional burial as the trend in recent years, more Jews have also made this choice. People choose cremation for a variety of reasons, including cost, where they would like their ashes spread, and the options that work best for them and their families. Another reason Jews may choose cremation is that in some cities, older cemeteries have run out of space, and there isn’t land available to create new cemeteries.
There aren’t national statistics available on how many Jews are choosing cremation, but reporting from The Forward suggests that the trend varies based on where you live in the country.
Can cremated remains be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
Many Jewish cemeteries allow for the burial of ashes on request, and you should ask the cemeteries or synagogues in your area what they offer. While there is no specific rule against burying cremated remains in a Jewish cemetery, individual cemeteries can decide whether to allow it or not.
What is Reform Judaism's position on cremation?
Within Reform Judaism, it’s considered a mitzvah, or commandment, to bury the dead in the earth. Traditional burial is encouraged, but Reform Jews aren’t obligated to be buried.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform Rabbinic leadership organization, says that there is no explicit requirement to be buried or any rule against cremation in biblical text. Since 1892, the CCAR has stated that Reform rabbis should officiate services for the deceased, even if they’ve chosen cremation.
Over the last century, that statement has been revisited and updated several times. Most recently, the CCAR has stated that they discourage the practice of cremation and encourage the choice of traditional burial.
In general, within Reform Judaism, the approach to evaluating Jewish customs is to consider whether traditional practices are still religiously meaningful in the present day. Ideas of what is meaningful are influenced by multiple factors and can change over time. If you’re making decisions for your end of life, you may want to get the advice of your religious leaders.
Read more: What does the Bible say about cremation?
Jewish burial traditions
- A Jewish burial ought to take place as soon as possible – typically within a day or two of the death. There can be exceptions to this rule, accounting for holidays or the time it takes for mourners to travel.
- After a person dies, a ritual guardian (shomer) watches over the body from death until burial.
- In preparation for burial, the body is ritually washed by the holy society (chevra kaddisha).
- The body is clothed in simple white shrouds made of 100% linen or 100% cotton (tachrichim).
- The body is placed in a simple pine casket.
- Before the funeral, immediate relatives tear (keriah) their garments or pin a torn black ribbon to their clothes to signify their mourning. They’ll wear this torn fabric for the first seven days of mourning.
- Prayers and a eulogy (chesped) are recited at the funeral, memorial service, or graveside.
- A funeral procession leads everyone to the Jewish gravesite.
- Mourners are given the opportunity to shovel dirt onto the grave. It’s the community’s duty to bury the dead.
- After the burial, the immediate family sit shiva, a seven-day mourning period during which the family doesn’t leave the house or participate in routine tasks. Close friends and family visit during this time, offering support and condolences.