Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Jewish Perspective: The Completeion

Even more so than the Catholics, the people of the Jewish faith, maintain their own cemeteries and have their own customs when it comes to preparing the dead for burial. This is a peek into the views of the church on the subject of cremation.

For part one of this article, see yesterdays post.

When we left off yesterday in Rabbi Levin's article, Adam had just buried his first son. Let's rejoin the Rabbi to get the rest of his perspective.

Burials became the norm and until the pagan tradition of burning on the pyre, burial in the ground was the accepted practice. Throughout history, Jews have been described as the people who bury their dead. The Torah commands us to "surely bury" – even the executed criminal. It's a shame that the People of the Book need to become copy cats of the latest culture; a culture that now has such a large percentage of people agreeing to cremation. Maybe subconsciously people want to be cremated – because if we respect our bodies due to the holiness it carries, then we are expected to live that way – a sublime responsibility – one that many don't necessarily want to commit to.
When Adolph Eichmann, one of the most despicable humans ever, was tried in Israel in 1962, the leadership of the country forbade burial for him – no shrine for this degenerate. They ordered cremation and dispersion of his ashes onto the Mediterranean. Now, isn't this exactly the opposite of what we want for our loved ones?
When Adam was created, G-d, says the Talmud gathered earth from all corners of the globe to make up Adam (adama in hebrew means earth), in order that wherever he dies, earth again will be able to absorb him – ready for hiding until t'chiyas hamaisim.
Years ago, when I was invited to speak at a conference of Jewish burial practices, I pleaded with the group of Rabbis and laypeople not to offer cremation as an alternative practice. Our generation, I said, the generation after the Holocaust should understand this better than most. (In fact, according to a South Florida editorial, the further away we Jews get from this period of the Holocaust, the less distasteful cremation becomes.) We are not the refuse that the degenerates of society thought we were and practiced with us. We are G-d's children, G-d's jewels. We should be hidden after life in "mother" earth, and not disposed of.
It is for these reasons that Jewish law says "no shiva is observed – no Kaddish said, no mourning or burial practices to those who are willfully cremated. They are considered by tradition to have abandoned Jewishness and have surrendered their rights to a posthumous honor.
For so many monumental questions people of the world look to the Jews for answers. When the Chief of Staff of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York was asked "when is the moment of death" regarding the complex issue of brain death – he answered simply – "when the little old Rabbi on the lower east side tells me – then I'll know." He was, of course, referring to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the premier decider of halachic issues for a half a century. (Rav Moshe was about 5 feet tall). Before the President of the USA weighed in on capital punishment, he needed Rabbi Feinstein's opinion. I wonder why, then, the people who are described as "the light to all nations" need to look to darkness for their direction in life?
Some people have stated that the reason they want to be cremated is so they should not be a burden on their families, not to use up ground space (for environmental reasons) and obligate funds for grave care and monuments. I wish they would consider that maybe their families appreciate that burden. Sure funerals, caskets, burials and the erecting of monuments are financially difficult and psychologically taxing, but this is the price we pay for love. For family and friends to forever be able to visit, pray and even cry at a loved ones grave site is an honor, not a burden. To read a tombstone and feel uplifted by the sweet memories of a life that has been loved and shared contributes to the totality of the human experience. This inspiration allows us to transcend the difficulties of the moment and the pressures of the pocketbook. Let us also remember the affirmation to us and to all of mankind, that life is not over with the tragedy we call death, but rather the everlasting soul – the G-dly part of us, truly lives on eternally. This unfortunately is so lost by the sad, immediate destruction of cremation.
So let us, the people that G-d himself describes as his special nation, embrace the instructions of our Creator with gratitude that our way in life and indeed in death has eternal ramifications. Ashrainu ma tov chalkainu. (Fortunate is our lot).

Rabbi Boruch E. Levin

I look not to offend anyone by posting this article. I do have respect for the Jewish faith as well as all faiths. I make no claims that one is right and another is wrong. I have formed my own beliefs over the years; An educated belief. But I do not discount any one's beliefs or rituals. Each person should be allowed to form their own opinions and practice their own life as they see fit.

I do find this to be an intriguing topic and may expand more on it in future post.

In contrast to what the Rabbi has written here, I tend to agree more with our friend Anne who wrote about part one....
 " My people (traveller types - children of the earth) believe that you have to burn the body, and anything too closely associated with it, to ensure that the soul can be free. If you keep too many of the dead person's things you hold them back from the next life. Traditionally they would burn the caravan and everything in it - with the body inside. 
Same idea - completely different approach."

In the end, whatever you choose, must satisfy your grieving process. That is what a funeral is for.


Jim said...

I can appreciate Anne's perspective here, as do a lot of people. But, as you do Stew, I respect everyone's right to be buried as they wish to be.
When you see the Titanic burial grave sites here in June, you will also see the Jewish Cemetery next door.
Interesting post Stew. Thanks.

MorningAJ said...

I think I need to write a blog post on this topic to cover all my views on this. It's been fascinating reading the Rabbi's words. Thanks for publishing them for us.
I studied archaeology and the rituals and practices of death are a huge part of that. I look forward to discussing it with you over fish and chips some day! :)