FREEZING A BODY FOR LATER FUNERAL
A member of the congregation desires to make arrangements for his body to be frozen after his death (by an institution in California which does this work). The purpose of this procedure is so that he can be buried in one funeral service with his wife when she dies. What would be the attitude of the Halachah to this plan? (Asked by Rabbi Norman M. Goldburg, Augusta, Georgia.)
THE INTENTION described in the letter is a very curious one. As far as I know, the question has never been asked before, but then the technique of freezing bodies (cryobiology) was not known until recently. In the past and all through our tradition, desire has been expressed for families to be buried in the same place. This request has considerable attention and approbation in Jewish law, especially when the burial is to be in a family plot (kever ovos), but this is the first time I have heard of a desire and a plan which goes beyond the husband and wife being buried in one place, but is a plan to have them buried at the same time. The request is indeed a strange one, for, after all, how can one know (unless one is already in a dying condition) just when he will die? Perhaps his wife will die first. Will he, then, make arrangements for her body to be frozen? Has she consented to that? Or suppose she marries again. But this latter contingency has not much bearing on the problem because if a twice-married woman dies, the custom is that she is buried with the husband with whom she has had children.
Now the question is whether this wish to be frozen for later burial is in agreement with Jewish legal tradition. There is a discussion on the freezing of bodies in Current Reform Responsa, pp. 238 ff. but that discussion has to do with the freezing of the body of a person still alive. The theory behind that was that the person would be kept in suspended animation by freezing until some future time when medical science would discover a cure for the disease from which he suffers, and which at the present time is deemed incurable. But the question here involves the freezing of a dead body. The first question, then, is whether there is any analogy to such a procedure in the tradition. In a way there is. One might say that the purpose of the proposed freezing of the body is the same as that of the embalming practiced originally by the ancient Egyptians (and done to the bodies of Jacob and Joseph) and, also, of the embalming widely practiced in modern times, namely, to delay the decomposition of the body.
Is the process of embalming, to which this new freezing is analogous in purpose, to be considered acceptable in Jewish law? According to some authorities, something much like it was actually practiced in the past and is to some extent permissible today. Greenwald (in his Kol Bo, p. 61) objects to the usual type of embalming, which involves cutting up the body and removing some of the internal organs. This procedure constitutes mutilation of the dead (nivvul ha-mayss), which is forbidden by Jewish law. However, Greenwald then speaks of a modern embalming process which involves no cutting into the body but is done merely by injection. This type of embalming he actually calls “freezing.” Then he proceeds to give authorities who make this “freezing” acceptable. One is particularly interesting to us—Kimchi to I Samuel 31:12, which speaks of the men of Beth-shan, of whom Scripture says that they burned the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, which had been mutilated by the Philistines. The commentator Kimchi says that whenever burning of bodies is mentioned in Scripture, it does not mean actually burning, but something like embalming. Greenwald also refers to a modern authority, Baumol, who in his responsa (Emek Halacha, #48 and #49) accepts the type of embalming called “freezing.” From all this, we can say that this method of preserving the body from decomposition, if there is a good reason for the delay, is not in itself unacceptable in Jewish law, provided that the preserving of the body is not done in a way that mutilates the body; and the cryobiology method certainly does not mutilate the body.
However, even though there are no strong objections to the method of preserving the body, there are objections to the delay in burial of a body. Jewish law and custom require that burial take place as soon as possible after the death; in fact, according to Orthodox practice, if it is possible, burial is on the same day. Only after the body is buried can the formal process of mourning begin (shiva, shloshim, etc.). In this case, if the body will not be buried for months or years, when is the required mourning to take place? Mourning is an honor and a piety to which every child of Israel is entitled. Besides the honor due the dead, it is a mitzvah incumbent on the survivors to give the dead due mourning. This plan, by not allowing the body to be buried, is preventing his family from fulfilling an important mitzvah, which one has no right to do.
There is also another objection to the delay in burial. Tradition declares that the period of death and the decay of the body is the time when all sins are forgiven. This is based upon the account of the criminals in Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:6, where we are told that the criminals were first buried in the cemetery belonging to the court. Only after their flesh had decayed could their families take the bones to bury them in the family cemetery, because once the flesh is gone, all the sins are forgiven. Therefore, even if, as mentioned above, the type of embalming called “freezing” is not objectionable, the preserving of the body for a long time, and thus keeping it from normal decomposition, is objectionable. It is for this reason that older Jewish tradition wanted the body to be directly in contact with earth and used, therefore, loose boards instead of a complete coffin—all this to hasten decomposition. But today we compromise in Orthodox custom by putting a little earth on the body inside the coffin. (As to contact with earth to hasten decomposition, see Yore Deah 362:1 and especially the Be’er Hetev.)
All of this indicates a general objection, if not a clear-cut prohibition”, on the part of tradition to the procedure asked about here. It delays the burial, keeping the survivors from the mitzvah of mourning. It delays the funeral, which in itself is objectionable, and hinders the normal decomposition of the body, which is deemed in tradition to be a signal for the complete forgiveness of sin.
However, the desire on the part of the inquirer to be buried at the same time as his wife, while it is unusual, is not an unworthy sentiment. Perhaps it can be carried out in some other way which does not involve all the objections mentioned above. Let the man, when he dies, be buried in a single grave and not in his family plot. Then, when his wife dies, his body can be disinterred to be buried with her in the family plot. Burial in the family plot is one of the reasons why disinterment is permitted in Jewish law (Yore Deah 363:1). Then, at the time of the disinterment, a double funeral service can be conducted or, at least, the funeral address can make adequate reference to both of the departed. There is no objection in the law either to the disinterment or to the delayed funeral service (hesped). In this way the families will not be deprived of the duty of mourning, the body will be buried in proper time, and the desire of the inquirer can be fulfilled in full accordance with tradition.