While it is certainly true that both Orthodox and Conservative traditions forbid cremation as a proper method of interment, I have never heard it said that if one is cremated, one loses one’s soul. Judaism has many different and inconsistent beliefs concerning the afterlife and the soul (an excellent compilation of these is presented in Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael (Jason Aronson, 1994 – 474 pages), but, to my knowledge there is no Jewish law on what one must believe.
When confronted with such questions as to what happens to us and our souls in the next world, my response is always “God knows.” I certainly don’t know.
It is instructive that (in the words of a Reform Rabbis responsum on the subject – www.http://ccarnet.org/responsa/nyp-no-5766-2/) “there is no clear and obvious prohibition against cremation in the sources of Jewish law and that “the Orthodox agitation against cremation actually began about a century ago” in response to the growing movement toward cremation in Western societies. … There is no explicit requirement in the Biblical text that the dead be buried rather than cremated. The sources make clear that burial was the normative practice in ancient Israel, but nowhere do we find an express prohibition of the burning of the corpse.”
In my opinion, there are really four issues at work regarding the Jewish attitude towards cremation. 1. Does cremation violate the biblical requirement (Deut. 21:23) to bury the dead? 2. Does cremation violate the requirement that we treat the dead with respect? Does cremation constitute an act of heresy in denying the concept of physical resurrection of the dead with the coming of the Messiah? 4. Is cremation especially problematic in light of the Holocaust? I will address each.
1 & 2. So long as the cremation and disposal of the remains is dignified, I do not believe the spirit of the requirement to bury the deceased and treat the remains with dignity is violated. One could question whether keeping the remains in an urn on the mantle would meet the requirement, however.
3. Reform Judaism has moved away from the literal belief in physical resurrection so this is much less of an issue for us. It also seems inconsistent to believe that the Holy One, having power to bring the long decomposed dead back to life would not be able to do so due to cremation. I am trained as a physicist and note that cremation and natural decomposition are really the same process, oxidation of the organic hydrocarbon remains – they just operate on different timeframes.
4. While I respect the sensitivities of those offended by cremation in light of the mass cremation of Jews and others by the Nazis, I am not convinced that the two processes are the same. Forced, mass cremation after mass murder is very different than following the wishes of one who elects this option. Furthermore, I have met families of Holocaust survivors who have elected to be cremated as a statement of solidarity with the fate of their relatives.
Judaism’s focus is on this world and I pray that your loving relationship with your sister and family will not be hurt by your beliefs about the next world.