My Wife Wants to be Cremated

September 12th, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 37 comments

My wife has stage 4 cervical cancer and is not healthy enough for the standard treatments. We are preparing for the worst but praying for the best. 

She has expressed a desire to be cremated.  It’s cheaper, and when I pass I will  be interned at Arlington as I am a veteran.  It sounded OK to me at first but I’m having reservations.

Your thoughts, should a Jew or a Christian consider cremation?

Robert H.

Dear Robert,

We are moved by your words, “We are preparing for the worst but praying for the best,” and pray that God responds favorably to your prayers.

While we love teaching what the Torah says we aren’t comfortable telling you as a Christian how to act. We recommend that you discuss this with a respected mentor and/or clergy from your own faith.

We can tell you that in Torah Judaism, proper treatment of the body after death is defined as burial, just as God told Adam toward the end of Genesis chapter 3. This is so important that, for faithful Jews, even if one’s parents expressed their wishes to be cremated, their children may not carry out those wishes. The idea is that after death, the parents will have entered a World of Truth and will be appalled that they ever wanted to do something counter to God’s law. As such, giving them a proper burial is actually following their final wishes.

When the soul leaves the body at the time of death, the body’s purpose for being no longer exists. However, as the vehicle that allowed the soul to interact with the world it requires special treatment. Part of that treatment requires a gradual return to the earth via burial rather than the abrupt return via cremation.

You might find it interesting that a Torah scroll and other holy writings as well as printed prayer books and Bibles are never thrown out. They are also buried in the ground.

In addition, resurrection of the dead is a central tenet of Judaism. Choosing to treat the body as if it will never be needed again could be seen as rejecting that belief.

It sounds like two things might be troubling your wife. Is she upset that since you are a veteran and will be buried at Arlington, the two of you will not be together? Does she feel that no one will care where she lies?

You also mention that she is concerned with the cost. Perhaps she would feel differently if you assured her that you would rather have a cemetery plot to visit than more dollars in your pocket.

We pray that the two of you find moments of peace and joy during this difficult time,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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37 comments

Mrs Jessie Nunn says:

Since my husband is a veteran also………about 5+ yearsago we visited the National Cementary in Kent, Wash. area (maybe Covington or Maple Valley on it’s address???)……… they have ways to do this. They said I would be buried and his ashes could be in a container in same area. These people should check into this.

Susan Lapin says:

Thanks for taking the time to give this advice.

Richard Jarrell says:

My question of you is how do you rationalize bodies that are vaporized by bombs in war, burned up by fire, drowned in the ocean and eaten by scavengers are dealt with? …I could go on. We agree that at death the soul instantly returns to the creator. I agree that dignified treatment of the flesh is respectful but with the soul back to its creator what difference does it make?

Greg Waldrep says:

I respectfully appreciate the traditional thoughts you express concerning treatment of the body after death but am troubled by something. Burial today does not allow the body to gradually return to the earth but instead places it in a box to remain as if it is incorruptible. As if it will be needed again. It is not and it will not. When resurrection occurs a body will not be needed by the almighty to recreate a person. Otherwise what will happen to those people whose bodies were destroyed such as the victims of the World Trade Center on 911? Doesn’t cremation allow for a wiser allocation of resources and provide less of a burden upon the earth looking toward the future? Isn’t that also something taught in traditions you reference? Would like to hear more of your thought on this.

Susan Lapin says:

Dear Greg–
Though we ordinarily pass on theological questions or speculation about things we can’t possibly know, we feel that your comment does deserve a response from us. Obviously the good Lord does not need bodies or anything else to bring about resurrection. However that is a far cry from voluntarily choosing something. When tragedies occur and bodies are irrecoverable God will do what He will do.
As to your first part, observant Jews either bury (in Israel) in a shroud or where laws require use a plain wooden coffin that quickly decomposes. As to cremation providing a more ecological solution, we disagree. As long as there is land for casinos, stadiums, and shopping malls, there will be land for burial. The bottom line is that for people who cherish the Bible, returning the body to the earth is a Divine directive.

Dale Stevens says:

Thank you Susan for your very wise response. I as a Christian believe in all the Holy Scriptures, and that in following Christ , we find them fulfilled. I believe you and the good Rabbi are expressing that regarding burial and cremation. I do not understand why true followers of Christ would want to be cremated. It has always been in my heart the request by Joseph that his people bring his body with them as they left Egypt. And we read in the Gospels that he, along with other God fearing Jews were raised up from the earth when Christ ascended to Heaven.

Peter B. says:

Hi Susan and Rabbi,

Thank you for posting this Q&A. Its content and the associated comments are exemplary of the tremendous value of this forum to all who participate, especially we Jews and Christians for whom the Bible is our one rule of faith and practice.

I love your comment that includes the phrase “… for people who cherish the Bible …”. Mr. Stevens’ comment is so appropriate in demonstrating just one of the many examples set by the patriarchs in Scripture of the proper treatment of the body after death. These examples are the practical application of what God has taught us at the end of Genesis chapter 3. And I would add to that the end of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 as well.

Something that I’ve witnessed in church over the years that I always find startling is how many church members pass away without having enough remaining accrued wealth to cover their final expenses. This highlights the fact that there truly is an urgent need for your valuable lessons about prosperity in general, and money in particular. The Good Lord teaches us in Hosea 4:6 that “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: (KJV)”. How many people understand that the Hebrew word (DaMiM) for money and the word for blood are one and the same? And why? Our money is quite literally our life’s blood. Our accrued wealth becomes the legs that we stand on. While blood may be physical and money is spiritual, the life of the flesh (our soul) is in the blood, that is, at least according to . . . (wait for it) . . . the Bible (Leviticus 17:11).

And so I’m greatly encouraged, as always, to read the exchanges between you and your virtual congregation. Because over the years I’ve learned and continue to learn so much from you. I owe a great debt of gratitude to you both, and to Dave Ramsey too! I thank the Lord each and every day for the wonderful teachers that he continues raise up and to send our way – and that includes all y’all.

Susan Lapin says:

And we value the wisdom you send our way, Peter.

Linda Mayle says:

Greg, I have given this some thought as my husband wants to be cremated, but I wish to be buried. My thoughts are that as far as I can see, cremation was a pagan ritual (I.e. Romans), but burial was used by Jesus Christ. If Jesus did it, it is good enough for me. Also, you can be buried without embalming. Just check to make sure the cemetery accepts unembalmed. I have decided that I am going “natural”, and made arrangements to have my husband’s ashes interned with me, should I go after him. If I go first, they will still bury his ashes in my plot although I will have to pay an additional opening and closing fee. As for those that do not have a body due to unusual circumstances,(war, fires, 9/11, etc.), I trust God’s wisdom and righteousness for these souls that did not have the opportunity to choose for themselves. God Bless you and may you have peace in whatever you choose. Linda

Lois says:

Please tell Robert that wives *can* be buried with their husbands in National Cemeteries. There is no charge for the grave site nor the grave marker. He should contact the National Cemetery he plans to use to learn how he can make arrangements for his wife to be buried before his death. God bless them both.

Richard Easbey says:

Speaking as a Roman Catholic, I know what The Church teaching is on this. As of Vatican II (1973) the church has declared that cremation is permissible WITH ONE CAVEAT: the remains must be treated with respect; i.e., NO scattering of the ashes on a mountaintop or into the ocean no matter how much the deceased wanted that. The ashes must be kept in a proper urn, and preferably interred in a “columbarium,” which is kind of like a big library with locking drawers (think of the tabernacle on the high altar in your church.) use a search engine for columbarium to find out more. I think the church frowns on keeping the urn and ashes in ones house, but I’m not 100% on that.

Hope that was helpful.

Susan Lapin says:

Richard, thanks for the information and you have given our Catholic readers a path to follow to look this up.

Linda O says:

I may be wrong, but as I contemplated this same issue the words “from dust you came and to dust you will return” came to mind. Isn’t cremation simply accelerating the process of returning to dust?

Mark Lampe says:

My Jewish friend was wrapped in a shroud and buried within twenty four hours of his death which is the custom, the body returns back to the earth which is very scriptural. There is no embalming and no air and waterproof casket like so many of my Christian persuasion opt for. My sister insisted on that along with an open casket service for both of our parents, though I kept my opinion to myself at the time, I felt that the practice is obscene. After all if we truly believe in the power of the Almighty to create all things by His will and with a word, then common sense alone would clearly indicate that he doesn’t need our worn out former container to make all things new.

Susan Lapin says:

When important discussions aren’t held in advance (and sometimes even when they are) death is a fertile ground for disagreement, Mark.

Mark says:

An important question, and an informative answer. (Including the reader comments.) Thank you.

Mike Harris says:

When I look at aerial photos of Jerusalem, unless mistaken, I see at the base of the Mt of Olives hundreds of coffins above ground. Why aren’t they buried? Thanks, Mike

Susan Lapin says:

You are seeing tombstones marking the graves, Mike. The burials are under ground.

Sam says:

Rabbi,
What are your thoughts on organ donation or donating bodies to a medical school for education?

-Sam

Susan Lapin says:

That’s a complex and fascinating question, Sam. Perhaps you can submit it as a question rather than a comment?

Michael W. Zorn says:

Interesting!
Great response from Susan especially. I m trying to talk my brother over in Germany out of a cremation he already arranged for himself. Having participated in a few Chevra Kadisha preparations for burial, a recent one was for me rather odd. There was no casket. We always place the met into a plain easily composeable casket, but not this one. Later I was told that the deceased insisted on a cremation. I felt that my services were misused and as in Susan’s response I was was participating in an inappropiate “send off”.

Susan Lapin says:

All answers are from both of us, Michael, but thank you. I hope you can convince your brother.

Karen Jones says:

Thank you ! This discussion made me feel much better about the decision I made in the burial of my mother 16 years ago. My mother insisted that she be in a sealed casket , and made sure I knew that was exactly what she wanted….when the time came I just couldn’t bring myself to do as she wanted , it seemed so horrible in some way ( I have been haunted by the image in my mind of my Dad under ground in his sealed casket 47 years) . It felt like some weird form of material body worship to keep them untouched like that. We are Christians , now I need to rethink seriously about my plan to be cremated.

Susan Lapin says:

Karen, we are so glad to hear that this was helpful to you.

Ruth says:

I know the truth when I hear it and of course, you are right. My parents were unbelievers that were cremated at their wish by my unbelieving sister. A dear Christian friend was cremated by her Jewish husband. Both were upsetting to me. If someone dies and all that is left are ashes …God will do what He will do. There are many without funeral insurance or means to properly bury their loved ones. I remember my husband’s parents had no money and the children had to come up with money (which we did not have at the time and had to borrow). Lord have mercy. I have learned from that and my husband and I now have funeral insurance. When you grow up in an alcoholic household, sometimes wisdom is absent. There are times when my husband and I look back at our childhood and wonder how far God took us from unbelieving parents to where we are today. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with all of us.

Susan Lapin says:

Ruth, you are making an important point which is that planning in advance, both to make one’s wishes clear and also to be prepared financially, is very important. Kudos to you and your husband for taking charge of your own lives.

Ron Hoy says:

As a Fundamentalist Christian, My reading of the scriptures seems to give a subtle clue that something is important about the body , it is the dwelling place of the Holy Ghost, a temple! And one of the punishments God threatens folks with in the OT is a lack of burial ( think Jezebel ) Even correct Baptism pictures Resurrection ,rising up from the water face first. Most folks I know have been ;shall we say crooked into doing non biblical funerals, by a business that profits from embalming.Even to the point of most people think they MUST be embalmed . If preservation is needed due to a longer funeral time or shipping the body , I can see this ( Joseph was embalmed)But folks opt for the cremation as the second and cheaper horn of a dilemma set up by the funeral home business and their lobbyist in the Government. A mandatory expensive embalming casket and vault or… a cremation. Here in the moutains we did a viewing at home or at the church house or both and buried in a family plot on the hillside. Jews and muslims both bury in a shroud. check you local laws and go back to the old paths and skip the funeral home.

shelia says:

Many years ago my aunt, the spouse of a veteran, was buried directly above her husband at the military cemetery and the tombstone had her name added.

Susan Lapin says:

Thank you, Sheila. I am uplifted by how many readers take the time to share their own experiences to help others.

Michael Garner says:

Hello Mrs. Lapin,

I believe all the scenarios I’ve considered over the years about cremation have been fairly well covered.

What I have enjoyed most is your replies. They have given me much to think about.

I was having a conversation with a friend at work about burial versus cremation. He wanted to be buried with “all his parts”. He would not even donate parts for someone else’s benefit.

I informed him that he would have to be buried within twenty-four hours to be buried with all his parts unless he considered blood not to be a “part”. If he were to have a traditional ceremony with the typical two or three day viewing it would be necessary to drain the blood and replace it with formaldehyde. The only other option is refrigeration or dry ice as required by the state of Ohio.

The Civil War changed attitudes about death and how the body is handled in the United States. Because of the great number of war dead it was at this time that embalming was introduced as we know it today.

As far as being a more ecological solution cremation requires 2,000 or more cubic feet of natural gas and about 4 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Cremation is loud, violent, disgusting, and artificial (google “cremation or burial”).

If cost is the concern consider this:
Cost is sometimes a concern when choosing between cremation and burial. For instance, the cost of a casket. However, there is no law that requires a casket for burial in the state of Ohio. Although the cemetery may have rules requiring a type of box.

Federal law requires a funeral home to inform you that you may use an alternative container. Containers can be made of cardboard, wood that is not finished, or a fiberboard. I found on the internet wood, plywood, and crates for coffins. There are even plans available to make a coffin.

In the state of Ohio you do not even need a funeral director. However you must do the legal work of filing a death certificate which can be initiated on line. In Ohio you can bury the deceased on private land in some instances.

You can google the laws for burial in your own state; “burial laws state of ______”. They are handily available.

If concerns are spiritual the advice of Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin seem to be most appropriate, “The bottom line is that for people who cherish the Bible, returning the body to the earth is a Divine directive.”

Thank you for your time.

Susan Lapin says:

So interesting, Michael. Some more info: Religious Jewish burial takes place immediately – almost always within 24-36 hours. And we use a simple pine coffin with no embellishment when a coffin is used.

Dave M. says:

Please excuse my ignorance, I am not sure what verse you are referring to at the end of Genesis 3 that pertains to proper treatment of the body? Can you please elaborate on this.

Susan Lapin says:

Dear Dave–
One need NEVER apologize for not knowing something–only for not asking questions. Genesis 3:19 records God telling us that to the earth/ground/dust we shall eventually return. One reason we Jews don’t cremate is because doing so turns the body into dust and ashes which may or may not eventually find their way back into the earth through an indirect process but burying directly obeys this verse about which you inquired. Also, we prefer not willfully destroying the body which God entrusted to us as the receptacle of our soul. Again, we are not in any way condemning other practices; that is not our mission. We provide access to ancient Jewish wisdom from Scripture.
Cordially
RDL

Robert Hopper says:

Thank you for the discussion. A lot to think about. I prompted a family meeting where her desire for cremation was brought up. Our children are Christians but have the same view. I need to tell her and the children that I don’t want cremation which might change her mind. I’m sure she wants us together. I think she just wants to avoid the public showing.

Susan Lapin says:

These are important discussions for families to have, Robert. BTW, Jews do not have open coffins or showings.

Teena says:

Dear Rabbi and Susan;
I am thankful to have read the Jewish understanding of burial. This is a good discussion as I’m ignorant due to tradition of ancestors who buried our dead in sealed coffins. I am a Christian and lately I am hearing [even] my pastor of our church say he cremated his mother because of her desires, and he wants cremation as well. I want God’s Will.

How can there be such stark differences between the law and grace?

Susan Lapin says:

Teena, when we answer questions we are always aware that we try to provide an insight into ancient Jewish wisdom. Both the Catholic and Protestant Churches have their own teachings on many issues. We do think it is important to have a spiritual path and you can appreciate another path while following your own.

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