Cremation and Modern Jewish History

With all the buzz about Amy Winehouse, I am surprised that none of the recent articles have presented the history of the issue. Most of the newspapers are simply quoting I don’t usually give simple bibliographies for a blog post but in this case it may be needed. (Nothing in this post is intended to decide any legal issues.)

In 1873, an Italian inventor presented in Vienna his new machine for cremation. It ushered in an era when cremation was seen as more modern, scientific, and hygienic than burial. It was seen as dignified and respectable. It sweep the Protestant world for several decades. They said that if God can resurrect the dead from bones, then he can just as easily do it from ashes. However, cremation was banned by the Catholic Church until 1963.

Rabbi Elijah ben Amozegh, Chief Rabbi of Livorno, wrote a treatise on the subject Ya’aneh Ba’esh (Livorno,1886), and called a conference of the Rabbis who banned cremation. Yet, Moses Israel Tedeschi, rabbi of Trieste, published a responsum in 1890 in which he not only tried to prove that cremation was not opposed to the spirit of Judaism, but asked that at his death his own body should be disposed of in this way. Cremation was avoided but would not write someone out of the fold.

For more on Italy, see David Malkiel, “Technology and Culture Regarding Cremation: A Historical and Phenomenological Analysis,” (Hebrew) Italia 10 (1993) pp. 37-70.

Similar to Italy, England Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, who held office from 1845-1890: “I beg to state that whilst there does not exist any precept prohibiting the interment in a Jewish cemetery of the ashes of a person who has already been cremated, our law is decidedly and emphatically opposed to the practice of cremation.”

Chief Rabbi Herman Adler, Nathan Marcus Adler’s son and his successor in office, stated: “There does not exist any precept prohibiting the interment in a Jewish cemetery of the ashes of a person who has already been cremated, an opinion supported by other eminent rabbis. We accordingly permit such a burial. At the same time we earnestly beg you not to construe this permission into a sanction of the practice of cremation.”

And therefore after the fact the practice was allowed full burial service by Burial Society of the United Synagogue of London: “The society shall not make any arrangement whatever for cremation. Where cremation is nevertheless to take place a service may be held at the house prior to the removal of the body, and if the ashes be encoffined then interment may take place at a Cemetery of the United Synagogue and the burial service shall be conducted there at the time of the interment.” (They have subsequently revoked such after the fact tolerance, but still tolerated by the Liberal movement.)

But in Germany things were different. In 1905, Dr. Meir Lerner of Altona, Germany, published his famous Hayyei Olam (Berlin 1905), containing answers of Rabbis from every country in the world that had a Jewish community with a rabbi. Not only did they all condemn the practice, but also, with a few notable exceptions, they prohibited doing anything with the ashes, such as burial in a Jewish cemetery, or for the survivors to observe the laws of mourning.

Adam Ferziger (Bar Ilan) has been giving an academic paper in the making for several years: “The Hamburg Cremation Controversy: early 20th century Orthodoxy and the boundaries of Jewish identity.” In the paper, he explained how this became a major cause célèbre and ideological battle culminating in considering those who are cremated as not deserving of shiva.

When I heard the paper in a room of historians of modern Judaism, the question was: why the extreme reaction in Germany and not in Italy or England. The basic consensus was that in German Jewry everything rose to dramatic ideological battle lines and identity proportions of inclusion and exclusion, which was not true about other countries.

Israel was the most categorical and did not have cremation until 2005. In 1935, the Rabbis of Jerusalem issued this ban against cremation: “We hereby notify all our fellow Jews that every Hevra Kadisha may not handle the ashes of those cremated, and they may not receive the ashes to bury them in a Jewish cemetery” 10 Tevet 5695 (1935)… (Responsa Da’at Kohen of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook,382).

In a more recent paper Adam Ferzinger, “Ashes to Outcasts: Cremation and Jewish Identity Before and After the Holocaust.” Points out the change in rhetoric to now eschew cremation, even among secular Jews, because of the Holocaust. A 1990 Reform responsum notes: “Reform Jewish practice permits cremation… although… we would, after the Holocaust, generally discourage it because of the tragic overtones.”

In the 19th century Rabbinic statements from Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan and reiterated by Rabbi Chaim Ozer, cremation is an implied statement of rejection of the concept of resurrection.The reason at the end of the 19th century  for not cremating was still becuase of the need to be whole at the time of resurection of the body.  In the 20th century rabbis explain the avoidance as a to a reason based on human dignity. We witness a change from rejecting cremation in the 19th century because of the need for a complete body for resurrection to Meir Lerner’s 1905 collection of Talmudic sources of human dignity and the prohibition to harm a body even after death. The responsa of Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann as well as the one written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook frame the issue as issues of human dignity and not to harm the body of the deceased. It is now seen as forbidden to destroy or mutilate a human body, even after death.

Jon D Levenson at the start of his work Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life. (Yale University Press, 2006) describes the loss of a sense of resurrection of the body among modern Jews. This shift away from resurrection exemplifies what the historian Michelle Vovelle documents as the cultural shift away from death by the end of the 19th century. For him, it is a removal of relgion and theology from our lives.

Now in the 21st century, we have a turn to cremation in American non-Jewish culture because it seems more clean and final, more economical, as well as more “Buddhist.” More than half of Americans in Western states are being cremated. It will increase in the Jewish community, so be prepared to deal with the issue and even create new traditions.

For some sources:
Jewish Encyclopedia
Jewish Virtual Library
Rabbi Raymond Apple
Does Jewish Law Permit Cremation? Rabbi Isaac Klein edited by Rabbi David Golinkin
Reform Movement- CCJR Responsa
Chabad Answer with a stronger emphasis on resurrection and the soul

For those who will be quoting this in their classes, please give full credit to the hard work of all the scholars cited and to this blog.

Postscript Update- I received an email from someone who claims that one of the YU Roshei Yeshiva told his aveilut shiur that, off the record, he knew of nothing halakhically wrong with cremation, though there are kabbalistic reservations.

18 responses to “Cremation and Modern Jewish History

  1. Thank you for this. I hope to dive into the material at a better time. My experience is many Jews do it because it’s far cheaper than ground burial rather than due to any Buddhist link.

  2. Moshe Shoshan

    Could you please flesh out the halachic arguments a little. Isnt this clearly nivul hamet?

    • Moshe,
      Jewish burial rites tend to favor practices that lead to the rapid decomposition of the body. Arguably cremation is simply an accelerated process and not intended to mutilate the corpse.

      I hope that “fleshes it out” for you – or was that not an intended pun?

  3. Agreed with Rabbi Feldman. Space is limited, and expending millions of acres on cemeteries will become increasingly expensive, and make it increasingly difficult for survivors to visit. The churchyards of England and the multi-layered catacombs of Italy attest to the long-term impracticality of whole-body burial.

  4. Cremation is the societal norm in the UK (~70% cremation vs. ~30% burial) and this appears to have penetrated non-Orthodox Judaism. As an example, see the membership package for Jews wishing to join the Belsize Square Synagogue in London. It is a successful Independent shul, founded by German refugees (click on Burial and Cremation Scheme for the details).

  5. Actually, if you think this is going to catch on among more Jews, we be quite behind the curve, because cremation is now becoming uncool, as it is not environmentally sound. Fancy caskets are similarly slowly falling out of grace.

    I blogged on this here: The Ecologically Correct Funeral.

    Of course, such trends are notoriously difficult to forecast.

  6. Adam Ferziger

    Dear Alan,

    Thank you for bringing this issue and my work on it to the attention of your readership. One caveat, to the consternation of Rabbi Lerner quite a few German rabbis permitted burial of the ashes. They required, however, that they be placed in a separate section of the burial ground.

    An article that I wrote addressing the German Orthodox context of the dispute is set to appear in the upcoming volume of the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book. A second one that focuses on the significance of the debate from the perspective of history of halakhah, particularly approaches to nonobservance, is under review for publication in an additional journal.

    Since the first oral presentation, my interest and appreciation for the richness of the subject of cremation and twentieth century Jewry has grown dramatically. I have gathered a great deal of relevant sources and plan to produce a full-length monograph that spans the entire period. To offer one small example, recently I shared some of my materials with a group of rabbis from across the denominations. Afterwards, one participant told me he knew of a case in the 1970s in which two congregants actually asked to be cremated and explained to the rabbi that they saw this as a way of identifying with the martyrs of the Holocaust

    If you or any of your readers are aware of relevant materials (rabbinic writings of all denominations – responsa, sermons, essays; personal considerations of the issue, synagogue or cemetery statutes, memoirs, oral history), I would very much appreciate being sent copies or at least bibliographical references.

    I can be reached at

    Adam Ferziger

    • Adam,
      What is the context for cremation being discussed in 1935 by the Rabbis of Jerusalem? What precipitated it?
      Also what is the background behind Maurice Lamm’s stating that kaddish is not said?

  7. I understand that our ancestors in Ancient Israel used to bury the body and then after some years passed, would dig up the bones and deposit them in a “bone box”. That may sound macabre, but possibly that would be halachically acceptable? Would anyone care to comment?

    • Dave — The Torah itself seems to countenance the transfer of bones. Jacob asked his sons, “Do not bury me in Egypt” (Bereshis 47:29). Joseph, on the other hand, asked his brothers “You must carry up my bones from here” (50:25). This seems a pretty clear request for temporary internment and later transfer. If Joseph thought it inappropriate to do that, he could have made the same request his father did.

  8. As someone often confronted with Jewish cremation in my hospice work, I thought I would add in a couple of points.
    1. I have come across an different phenomenon regarding cremation and the Holocaust. While many eschew the practice because of the cremation of our brethren by the Nazi’s, there are people who specifically want to be cremated as a means of connecting with their deceased who were cremated.
    2. As a hospice chaplain, the subject of cremation is a common conversation. I am personally averse to cremation as a form of burial. However, as a chaplain, whose primary role is being supportive to people through spiritual means, I do not intervene to prevent someone from making a choice I disagree with. I had a situation early in my career in which a non-orthodox family was planning to cremate their mother at her request. They had made all the arrangements, and then the patient’s son comes over to me and says, my brother-in-law told me that cremation is not allowed according to Jewish law. In response, I offered him two approaches. He could either decide not to cremate his mother because cremation is not allowed (the information from your post notwithstanding, and not known by me at the time) or he could decide to follow her wishes. Either way, I was not going to abandon them when they needed support. This is a personal approach of mine, not something that I expect everyone to adhere to, but one which I believe serves the situation well.
    3. On the same subject, since many Jewish people are exposed to the Jewish views on death and dying through R. Maurice Lamm’s The Jewish Way of Death and Mourning, it is important to note that he categorically says it is prohibited, which for many is all they ever know. There is another source, much more nuanced, written by another Orthodox Jewish chaplain, from whom I got the impetus to distinguish between a decision I disagree with and the need to still support the grieving family. It is found in the book To Walk in God’s Ways, by R. Joseph Ozarowski. But even there, he provides texts that seemingly indicate more than a mere aversion to the idea.

  9. Adam Ferziger

    Lamm is most likely based on Lerner. I haven’t studied the 1935 case yet.

  10. Thanks for sharing this. Yes, our historical and halakhic sources are much more nuanced than our popular consciousness on these issues.

    While cremation may indeed seem “more clean and final, more economical,” most people (Jews among them) are unaware of information that runs counter to this perception. In my experience, the primary unaddressed issues are vulnerability to criminal desecration (the real problem of nivul hamet), environmental costs (and hence the violation of bal tashkhit), and avoidance of the messy human need to grieve our losses.

    In recent years I have been compiling “Dust and Ashes” resource materials to facilitate more effective dialogue on Judaism and cremation. These materials are now available with a 45-minute telephone orientation and tutorial which includes:

    * Strategies for opening and sustaining communication about cremation and end-of-life values
    * Surprising and little-understood complexities of cremation for Holocaust survivor families
    * Basic but little-known facts about the cremation process
    * Actual environmental costs of cremation–and environmental justice issues of crematory construction and maintenance
    * Implications of the absence of sh’mirah and levayah
    * The importance of direct rabbinic and lay leadership involvement in practical advocacy for kibbut hamet
    * Accessible Biblical and classical rabbinic texts that highlight basic Jewish principles of kibbud hamet
    * Excerpts of selected contemporary responsa (including some of those mentioned above)

    Those who are interested in receiving these materials and the accompanying telephone tutorial can contact me via waysofpeace (at) earthlink (dot) net.

    With many blessings for Shabbat Shalom and beyond,

    Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, MSW, MPH

    “We sustain the poor…and visit the sick…
    and bury the dead…and comfort the bereaved…
    for these are ways of peace.”
    (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Gittin)

  11. In the beginning of the Common Era when some were buried in tombs, there was the duty of opening the tomb after three days to make sure the supposed deceased were dead. You can also cross reference in the Tanakh, 2 Kings 13:21, that this indeed happened. There seems to be an aversion to being buried alive (since orthodox are not embalmed how would one know) and cremation certainly negates this. And I wouldn’t be so quick to say we know death better with our advanced medicine, especially since business (medicine is business) is trying to squeeze productivity out of fewer workers and there is the golf course of course. There are still people lucky enough to escape being buried alive but I wouldn’t rely on it.

  12. The Rev. JF Stern, for many years the Minister of the East London (United) Synagogue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, instructed in his will that he be cremated, and he was.

    The United Synagogue in London has always taken the pragmatic view that Jewish remains are Jewish remains, and whatever condition they may be in is not the business of the Hevra Kadisha, unless they took care of the funeral. Interestingly, the United Synagogue Hevra Kadisha is actually called the Hevra Gemilut Hasadim.

  13. Facinating blog on cremation and Jewish Law… we need more blogs like this that question and review accepted doctine in a scholarly, historical and reasonable manner.

  14. Funny that nobody mentioned how King Shaul was kinda cremated…

  15. Pingback: Confronting Cremation « The World of Pastoral and Spiritual care

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