First, I want to thank you for asking a very thoughtful and practical question, one that is challenging to answer because it is such a sensitive issue. Growing up, I attended Jewish day school, and I learned that above all, we are to treat one another with dignity and respect because we were created in the image of God. As a kid, it was hard to really understand what that means. Over the years, I’ve learned that there are some things, when it comes to our health, that are simply out of control. Some people get sick for unexplainable reasons, while others live healthy lives despite making unhealthy lifestyle choices. At the end of the day, we only have one body, and it is our responsibility to care for it to the best of our abilities, and similarly, to do the same for those around us. That is, in a way, what it means to be holy and sacred.
One of the pieces of Jewish tradition that I admire and respect the most is the customs and practices connected to death and dying. In a word, it’s all about dignity. When a person is dying, we do our best to keep them comfortable, free from pain and suffering, and surround them with friends and family who love them. And when that person dies, we make sure to honor the deceased by taking the utmost care of the person until the funeral takes place. For me, I think about the obligation in Judaism to bury through the lens of holiness and dignity.
Jewish tradition teaches that each person has both a body and a soul. Even after a person dies that person’s soul lives on forever, and it is the soul that makes each of us who we are. In a way, our body was a gift from God for us to use while alive, but when we pass on, the body returns to God, as we learn in the Torah that just as “God formed human beings from the dust of the earth,” so too shall return to the dust of the earth through natural means (Genesis 2:7). One of the main ways that we show kavod hamet, honor to the dead, is to take great care to bury our loved ones, allowing them to go back to God in a natural way. The Torah teaches us, “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken” (Genesis. 3:19). This is the basis for Jewish burial.
One of the other struggles that I have with cremation is connected to the Holocaust, a time in our history when the Nazis cremated our Jewish brothers and sisters as a way of disrespecting and showing no regard for us as human beings. In this case, cremation was an act of hate, not only because of how the Nazi’s treated us because of our Jewish identities, but because of the lack of respect the Nazi’s showed even after our ancestors had tragically died.
I think there is one more compelling reason why Jewish tradition speaks to burial. In addition to honoring the deceased, there is also a certain level of sacredness given to those mourning the loss of a loved one. Cremation in general, takes more time than burial. Often times, when waiting many days and even weeks for cremation to take place, it is hard to allow the family to begin mourning the loss because the burial has not yet taken place. In Judaism, burial takes place as soon as possible after a person has died, not only to honor the dead, but also to allow the mourners to begin grieving.
While I don’t think that finding space for burial as an imminent problem, I agree that the cost of burial is significantly higher than a burial. With that said, almost all communities have ways of supporting you and your family so that you can perform a Jewish burial without feeling the added financial burden during your time of loss. I encourage you to talk with your rabbi, local Jewish funeral home, and look into a free loan burial to receive the support you need as a way of honoring your loved one.
I pray that you and your loved ones live a long, healthy life, and that if God forbid you do face a loss of someone close to you, that you will be supported and comforted in your time of need, allowing both the deceased and those in mourning to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.