BURIAL OF CREMATION ASHES
A Conservative Jewess in Delhi, India, married a Hindu, Colonel Khosla, twenty-five years ago. She is still residing in Delhi. Recently her daughter Bella, aged fourteen, received accidental burns in her kitchen. She was hospitalized and, after four days, died in the hospital. She was cremated according to Hindu rites. The Jewish community refuses to bury her ashes. (Inquiry through Rabbi Joseph Glaser, New York.)
IT IS NOT QUITE clear from the letter what is asked of us here. The letter contains the following statement: “At the last Executive Meeting of the Committee it was decided to approach the Chief Rabbinate in U. S.A.” This seems to indicate that the small Delhi Jewish community (which, as the letter states, is divided as to whether to bury the ashes in the Jewish cemetery or not) has decided to inquire of the Chief Rabbinate of the United States. There is no Chief Rabbinate in the United States. So, possibly since the mother is described as a Conservative Jewess, the inquiry is being directed to various religious groups in the United States, and to us among them.
Of course if we are asked for the Reform point of view (since the mother is not Orthodox), it is very clear that we have a firmly established custom in Reform Judaism to bury in our cemeteries the ashes of the cremated. As a matter of fact, our Conference decided (as published in our Yearbook, 1892, p. 43) that we will never refuse to officiate at a funeral at which a cremation is to take place. I presume we passed that resolution because the Chief Rabbinate of England had decided to permit the burial of ashes in the Jewish cemeteries, but not to officiate.
But it may be that the inquirer wants more than our Reform point of view. Let us, therefore, discuss the matter from the point of view of Jewish tradition. There is no question that the child who died is a Jewish child, since she has a Jewish mother, and therefore under normal circumstances could be buried in the Jewish cemetery. In fact it is a mandate to bury the body of a Jew. However, her body was cremated, and therefore the community is divided as to whether to bury the ashes or not. I have already discussed the question of cremation rather fully a number of times in the past (see Reform Jewish Practice, I, p. 133; also Modem Reform Responsa, pp. 269, 278, 237; also Contemporary Reform Responsa, p. 169). It is, therefore, sufficient here to mention the main elements in-volved in the problem. Besides, the specific questions involved here are different from those discussed in the past.
There is no doubt at all that cremation as a practice is contrary to Jewish law, although it must be mentioned that when the men of Jabesh-gilead (I Samuel 31:11-13) captured the bodies of Saul and Jonathan from the Philistines and burnt them and then buried the ashes, they were described as “valiant men.” The only question that is at all debatable is not the cremation itself, but the burial of the ashes in the Jewish cemetery. Rabbi Meyer Lerner of Altona published a whole book of responsa that he gathered from the Orthodox rabbinate of Europe (Chaye Olam), the aim of which was to prove that the ashes of the cremated should not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. However, at the same time, contrary Orthodox opinions were published, among them the permission to bury ashes given by Azriel Hildesheimer of Berlin.
There is, however, a full discussion on the question of the burial of the ashes by David Hoffman of Berlin (in a sense a successor of Hildesheimer at the Orthodox Seminary). After a complete and detailed discussion, he concludes that the mandate to bury the dead does not apply to the ashes of the cremated. Yet though there is no mandate to bury the ashes, there is also no prohibition against it. In other words, the ashes may be buried in a Jewish cemetery, although he prefers that it not be done.
Aside from the central question of the permissibility of the burial of the ashes, there is an additional consideration here, in this specific case, which would strengthen the case for permitting the burial. Jacob Emden of Altona (one might say a sort of predecessor of Meyer Lerner), in his responsa (Vol. II, 169), proves that there is no question as to the ashes of bodies burnt by accident (in conflagrations and also the bodies of martyrs burnt at the stake). It is certainly a duty to bury these ashes in the cemetery. David Hoffmann, in his responsa referred to above, accepts the opinion of Jacob Emden and repeats the permission for the burial of such ashes. This has some relevance to the case described in the letter. There is no evidence that the mother committed the sin (from the Orthodox point of view) of ordering the cremation. It was the hospital that did it, following the usual practice in India. Therefore we may well say that this was a burning b’oness (i.e., under compulsion), and therefore the ashes may certainly be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
To sum up: There are enough mitigating circumstances in the case described to follow the permission indicated in the summation by David Hoffman, namely, that while the burial is not a duty, as normal burials would be, it is nevertheless permitted, especially in this case, where the mother did not order the cremation.