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 chabad.org. 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 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.