First, join a Reform congregation. Actually, as an ordained rabbi from Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, I have done many funerals for members and unaffiliated Jews who have been cremated. (I have also done funerals for those who have chosen to donate their body to science - another issue for Jew to ponder).
I base my response on two things, honoring the wishes of the person who is pre-planning (always the best way to go), who is dying or has died and what I know from the Reform Rabbi's Manuel.
The current Rabbi’s Manual, published in 1988, states: “We continue to stress that burial is the time-honored Jewish way of disposing of the dead... However, the practice of cremation has lately spread, for a number of reasons. We would reiterate that it ought to be discouraged if possible, especially in our generation which has seen the murderous dispatch of millions of our people by way of crematoria. If, however, cremation has been decided upon by the family, we should not refuse to officiate. It is suggested in such cases that the service be held at an appropriate place and not at a crematorium.”
My grandparents are Holocaust Survivors, yet this is not the image I picture when one choose to be cremated. I picture the person as they were in life and feel for the many emotions present when a loved one has died.
We begin with the very basic notion that cremation is a breach of the Biblical mandate that those who die must be buried (Deuteronomy, 21:23).
From your question, it appears that one of the couple does not want to be cremated. The issue then is how to handle this issue within the marriage. Sharing information on the importance of being buried as being a fundamental Jewish principle is a good starting off point. From there, it might help for the anti-cremation spouse to share the desire to rest together even after death, a reality that is impossible with cremation. Nor is there a possibility of setting up an appropriate monument.
Another serious issue is the matter of what happens if the spouse wanting to be cremated dies first. This will place the surviving, anti-cremation spouse in the very uncomfortable position of either doing something that violates Jewish law, or, as is the rule in this instance, to proceed with burial according to Jewish tradition and ignoring the spouse's wishes. The realization that the cremation wish is a complicating one may cause the cremation-desiring spouse to re-consider.
Failing that, this can possibly be a serious intrusion on marital harmony, such that a meeting with the couples' rabbi might be in order. But it is a "burning" issue that needs to be resolved.
How we choose to be buried is a symbolic act that reflects our deepest understanding of life and death, and has serious implications for family members who mourn our loss and remember us. Therefore, it is worthwhile to study discuss and study the question of cremation with your loved one and a local rabbi.
In short, however, the Jewish tradition strongly discourages cremation on spiritual, ethical, historical, and psychological grounds. Our lives are deemed as absolutely holy because we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Moreover, the Talmud declares that both our souls and our bodies are integrated aspects of such holiness, as it states: “The Holy Blessed One brings the soul and throws it into the body and judges them as one” (B. Sanhedrin 91b). Therefore, how we treat the body, even after death, must be with dignity and respect. Furthermore, the return of the body to the earth is intended to be a natural and gradual process rather than a rushed, artificial act of burning and destruction. A modest burial affirms the eternal value of life and fulfills the sacred cycle of life from birth to death expressed in the Torah, “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken” (Gen. 3:19).
It is also important to note that since the Holocaust, during which Nazis burned Jewish bodies en masse as a deliberate statement of the worthlessness of Jewish life, many Jews find voluntary cremation abhorrent and offensive.
Finally, Judaism considers the psychological condition of the mourners in addition to the deceased. The tradition of burying a loved one and shoveling dirt onto the casket in a final resting place, helps the mourners to accept the permanence of death, which is an important first step of grieving.
With its position on the practice of burial, Judaism affirms that even though our time on earth may be short, the value of our lives does not dissipate into the atmosphere. Rather, we are forever embedded within the heart and mind of our loved ones, God, and the universe itself.
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