MOURNING FOR THE CREMATED
If a body has been cremated, are the relatives in duty bound to carry out the regular mourning, shiva, etc.? Or if they are not in duty bound, may they do so if they wish? (Asked by Rabbi Jack Segal, Houston, Texas.)
ONE WOULD expect that this question would be definitely decided in the Halachah, yet actually it must be considered as still an open question. The reason for the indefiniteness on the matter is due to the fact that the status of the act of cremation and the question of the burial of the ashes in the cemetery have not been definitely decided. The most extreme opinion on this question was expressed by Rabbi Meyer Lerner in his book Chaye Olom, published in Berlin, 1904. At that time, apparently, the practice of cremation was beginning to spread in Germany among certain circles of Jewry. Thereupon Rabbi Lerner gathered opinions from the leading Orthodox rabbis, mostly of Eastern Europe, who answered entirely in the negative. Lerner himself, in the conclusion which he drew from all these negative opinions, came to the following outright decision, which he expressed in the last two pages of his book: Cremation, he said, is absolutely forbidden; the ashes may not be buried in the Jewish cemetery, and people who provide for the cremation of their bodies are undoubtedly complete sinners with regard to Jewish ritual and morality and belief. Therefore, no mourning at all should be made for them.
It is evident that this is the most extreme possible opinion on this matter. Michael Higger, at the end of his book Halachas v ‘Aggados, has a long essay (beginning on p. 161) proving that the out-and-out objection to cremation is not quite justified according to the Halachah. Of course, cremation ought not to be practiced, he says, because it is contrary to established Jewish custom. But, he says, what is actually forbidden is only the burning of a body in order to disgrace it, but not if it is meant for the honor of the deceased. Of course, no Orthodox authority would openly permit cremation. Nevertheless, the fact that the prohibition is not so clear-cut is evident from the fact that other Orthodox authorities, such as Benamozegh of Leghorn and David Hoffmann of Berlin, both permit the burial of the ashes in the Jewish cemetery (see Reform Responsa for Our Time, pp. 112 ff.).
Even from the point of view of the Halachah, which must be considered as opposed to cremation, it would be difficult to justify the extreme opinion of Meyer Lerner that no mourning at all should be conducted for the cremated. Let us say that the cremated person himself had said that he wanted no regular funeral ritual. Even so, it would be doubtful whether the survivors may dispense with the mourning. The fact of the matter is that a man may say he wants no elaborate funeral, and his wishes must be acceded to because the funeral oration is considered to be an act of homage or honor to the deceased, and the man, if he so wishes, may dispense with such honors. He may say, “I do not want them.” But the mourning, shiva, etc., are not merely an act of honor with which he may dispense. The mourning ritual is a religious duty incumbent upon the survivors. The deceased had no right to prohibit his survivors from performing a religious duty which is incumbent upon them. See the whole discussion in Recent Reform Responsa, especially p. 111, and particularly the responsum of Jacob Weill, # 17, and the Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 344:10. There Joseph Caro states that if a man asks that no eulogy be made for him, we obey his request. To which Isserles adds that if, however, he asks that the seven and thirty days mourning be omitted, we do not obey his request. Therefore, even from the point of view of Orthodoxy, the opinion of Meyer Lerner that no mourning at all should be conducted is to be considered an extreme one. It is to be noticed that Greenwald (in his Kol Bo, pp. 54 ff.) merely cites Lerner’s harsh opinion in quotation marks and does not state it as law.
The above is, of course, the situation in Orthodox law. But in Reform, our Central Conference decided long ago that no ritual should be omitted in the case of cremation (CCAR Yearbook, 1892, p. 43). We bury the ashes in our cemetery without question, and certainly, from our point of view, full mourning should be observed.