Burial Versus Cremation in Jewish Tradition

Jack E. Shattuck
The author, a former rabbinical seminarian, cautions that the following is not intended to provide a definitive statement of rabbinical law (halachah), but rather provides a general summary of overall Jewish perspective on the subject. For a ruling on Jewish law, one should consult an orthodox rabbi.
Judaism, from early times, accepted burial as the normal disposition of remains after death. Even before the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, the patriarchs and matriarchs observed that tradition -- as found in the Book of Genesis for Abraham (Gen. 15:15; 25:9,10), Isaac (Gen. 35:8, 19), Jacob (Gen. 49:29,30; 50:5 ff.), Sarah (Gen. 23), Rebecca and Leah (Gen. 49:31), and Rachel (Gen. 48:7), and even Rebecca's nurse, Deborah (Gen. 35:8, 19). Joseph went so far as to insist that he not be permanently interred in the non-Jewish surroundings in which he lived, but rather that his body be returned to the land of his fathers for burial (Gen. 47:29. 30), a promise fulfilled by Moses (Ex. 13:19). A rabbinic legend proposes that the first victim of death among mankind, Adam, was buried by Cain (Gen. 4:8-11), after getting the idea by seeing one bird burying the other's remains after a battle (Tanhuma Bereshit). This example also teaches us that a clean bird's blood must be buried after ritual slaughter. Further, we are taught in Talmud (b. Sotah 14a) that one of the ways a Jew performs acts of righteousness by imitating the way of the Almighty is in burying the dead, as we understand that G-d Himself did for Moses (Deut. 34:6). One of the prime intents of burial is to avoid Nivvul HaGuf, mutilation of the body. This applies to either animal or human marauders. Both physical and spiritual pollution from leaving a corpse unburied should be avoided. Another rabbinic legend hints that Isaac once proposed that his ashes be placed in an urn for his family to recall him. Thee suggestion, if ever actually made, was ignored -- Isaac is buried with the other patriarchs -- and the sages tell us . . . . . .

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