MRR 278-280



In California there is a curator in charge of all bodies donated to science. If after the scientific work has been done ashes or parts remain of the body the curator has them disposed of (by burial). Does not Jewish law require that the ashes and other remains of the bodies of Jewish people (whose bodies have been donated to science) be buried in a Jewish cemetery? (Asked by Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)


WITH REGARD to the ashes left after cremation, Jewish religious law has not yet come to a clearcut decision as to the requirement or even as to the permissibility of their burial in a Jewish cemetery. Of course cremation itself is against Jewish Orthodox law, but the legal debate is on the following: If after cremation has occurred, is it a religious duty to bury those ashes, or need we pay any attention to their disposal? The first mod ern spread of the custom of cremation occurred in Ger-many about a century ago. The Orthodox rabbi of Hamburg, Rabbi Meir Lerner, fighting against the growing custom of cremation, declared that the ashes may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. He wrote to many Orthodox rabbis and elicited the same negative opinion from them. These opinions he then published in his book, Chaye Olam. However, other German rabbis permit the burial, as for example, Enoch Ehrentreu, in Cheker Halachah, and Simon Deutsch, in Or Ha’emet, who also said that ashes were buried in the Frankfurt cemetery at the express direction of Azriel Hildesheimer, the leader of German Orthodoxy. The Rabbi of Leghorn, Italy, Elijah Benamozegh, in his Yaaneh Va’esh, went further and said that while it is against Orthodox law to cremate, nevertheless it is a duty to bury the ashes. A fair balance of the state of the law is given by David Hoffmann (Melamed Leho’il, Yoreh Deah 113) who says that while it is not obligatory to bury the ashes, it is not forbidden to do so. So it is a balanced situation in the law, and you have, I think, no ground to demand the ashes, but I believe they could be buried with fair propriety in a Jewish cemetery.

Now as to parts of the body which remain after all the scientific tests are finished: The question of how much of the body there must be for the requirement of burial is complicated by a number of factors. How much of the body must there be for the identification of the corpse, so that a wife may be declared a widow and be eligible to remarry? Another complication: A priest may not come in contact with dead bodies, except for his seven close relatives. However, if a body is found by a priest at the roadside and there is no one else to take care of the body, the priest not only may but is in duty bound to take care of it. Such a neglected body is called, therefore, a met mitzvah.

Now the question with regard to a met mitzvah becomes the source of the law involved in the question you ask. How much of a body must there be found in the field or by the roadside for the priest to consider it a met mitzvah and be, therefore, in duty bound to bury it? The law is summed up in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 374:2, as follows: If the head and most of the body is found, the priest is in duty bound to bury it. Having found that much of the body, he then is in duty bound to look around for the remaining frag-ments of it and bury them. From this basic law develops the rule that even as much as a piece “the size of an olive” of a dead body must be buried. See all these laws summed up in Greenwald’s Kol Bo Al Avelut, page 183, paragraph 18.

In other words, while it is not sure that ashes require burial, it is sure that any part of the body requires burial in a Jewish cemetery. It is clear that Jewish tradition requires you to ask the curator that this be provided for.