Although there is an important halakhic principle that there is an obligation to follow the instructions of the deceased--“mitzvah le-kayem et divrei ha-met” (see, for example, Ketubot 70a, Gittin14a and 40a; Hoshen Mishpat 250 and 253), this ruling does not apply if fulfilling the deceased’s instructions would entail a violation of Jewish law (see, for example, Responsa Tashbetz, II, no. 53; Responsa Ketav Sofer, Yoreh Deah, no. 183). It was recently reported that in a new collection of halakhic opinions of the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (http://www.vosizneias.com/51249/2010/03/14/israel-rabbi-ovadia-do-not-honor-the-will-of-a-deceased-if-it-is-against-torah/) ruled explicitly against following the deceased’s instructions for cremation.
Based on the biblical verse, “you shall surely bury him” (Deut. 21:23), Jewish law and tradition requires the burial of a corpse. Furthermore, Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 384:1 codifies the prohibition of cremation (see zResponsa Chelkat Ya’akov, 2:4). Historically, communities have refused burial of cremated ashes in their cemeteries (See Responsa Seridei Aish, II, 123-124; Responsa Melamed Le-ho’il, II, 113-114; and Gesher Ha-Chaim 1:16:9) and have withheld burial and mourning rites from those who have been cremated.
Sometimes directives are not to be followed.There are higher principles at work and these principles trump personal choice. For example, if someone says to another “Torture me,” the imperative carries no weight and any listener would disregard the statement no matter the relationship between the two.Philosophically, the reason is clear: our bodies are not our personal property to do with as we please.Rather, they are on loan from God, as it were, and must be treated with the utmost reverence.The reverence we give to the person extends even after death.Here, the operative principle is “kavod ha-met.”In light of this principle, a number of practices are contrary to Jewish law.For example, leaving a body unattended, or mutilating a corpse, or embalming the dead, or viewing the body are all violations of the principle of “kavod ha-met.”And so is cremation, regardless of any exceptions in early Jewish history.The Jewish ideal is to return the body to the earth from which the very first human being was created (Genesis 3:19), bringing life full circle.With all this in mind, the surviving family members must ignore the instructions previously given by the decedent and not cremate the body. What may complicate things is the fact that not all the surviving family members may be in agreement and the fact that even after knowing what Judaism demands, the family may choose to ignore it.Also keep in mind that many rabbis will not officiate at a funeral when cremation will ensue.
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