Death: A burning issue

Those who oppose cremation on religious grounds expose their own ignorance regarding Judaism

The disturbing news of the torching of the Alei Shalechet crematorium caught me unprepared. I have been corresponding with the company regarding my tragic death at what I hope will be a ripe old age.


Actually we were already discussing the gloomy subject two years ago when while surfing the Internet I discovered a California company which sends you into the world to come in the following happy way: The body is cremated immediately after death. The ashes are then mixed into fireworks and you are shot into the sky in a colorful display of fireworks over the Bay of San Francisco to the music of your choice. I immediately wrote down the details, even mulled over the possibilities and chose the song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees which seemed incredibly appropriate to the circumstances.


To my surprise and chagrin my plans were met with unexpected resistance from my wife, may she live a long life, and my eldest son who said they have no intention of flying all the way to San Francisco. I told them that as far I know it’s not like buying a ticket right now and in any case I expect them to honor my memory in accordance with respecting the requests of the deceased.


After ongoing discussions they said that as they have no respect for my blessed memory so long as I am still alive, there is no reason for them to begin after I die. I explained that in Israeli law there is a well-known document called ‘a will’. And if they don’t shoot me into the sky over the bay I will have to leave all my earthly possessions to the Israel Land Authority. They responded in a very mature manner telling me to take a hike.


That sort of put a damper on the discussion which only made me more adamant in my position. I rejected with disdain my eldest son’s proposal that they stuff me sitting on the couch in the living room with a newspaper and a cup of coffee. No one will ever know I died since I sit there all the time anyway. My wife, who has a weakness for tradition, (her great grandfather, Rabbi Amiel, was Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi) asked at one point if the tradition even exists in Judaism. I was happy to note that yes there was most definitely some precedents:


For example, here is the description of the death of King Saul, first king of Israel as it appears in Samuel A, verse 31: “And all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons and came to Jabesh and burnt them there.”


More examples? Please. Take the death of King Yehoram a particularly unsavory character who even received a letter from Eliyahu the Prophet – a kind of state comptroller Lindenstrauss today - except that he insisted on disappearing and kept annoying God until in the end there was no alternative but to inflict him with an inflammation of the bowels and he suffered an excruciatingly painful death The people of Israel decided that he was not entitled to a dignified burial as befitting royalty: “And his people made no burning for him, like the burning of his fathers.”


In contrast Assa, King of Judah, was a much better guy. I n his case, it was decided to allow him to die with the dignity to which he was entitled. “…And they made a very great burning for him.”


So are you getting this? Not only is there cremation in Judaism as part of the burial ritual but it’s even considered dignified, suitable for the royal dynasty and for me. It’s true that the Hevre Kadisha, the Jewish burial society (a society that no one wants to join) wouldn’t receive the thick envelope at the entrance to the cemetery but they can always find other ways of getting along -- like getting real jobs for example.


I have to admit that after we concluded this part of the discussion, the conversation got kind of bizarre. My wife for example discovered the existence of a customer service that uses a chemical process to turn the ashes of the deceased into a synthetic diamond. With a kind of suspicious glee, she proposed to wear me on her finger because diamonds are forever.


I have to admit I was momentarily intrigued by the idea but then I understand that my wife is a very comely woman who would probably want to remarry after I am gathered unto my forefathers (although there is reason to hope she’ll wait at least until the end of the shiva). The notion that I might find myself scrubbing the hairy back of the second husband of my widow seems to me, how shall I say somewhat troubling. In the end, we agreed that my ashes will be placed in an urn shaped like a colorful garden dwarf and be placed in the flowerbox on the porch. My son even suggested adding a note that says: “He was always short.” But the proposal was ridiculed and rejected.


Then came the article about ‘Alei Shalechet’ in the ultra Orthodox media and it didn’t take long for someone to torch the place. Government Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas took the matter extremely seriously and proposed that ‘Alei Shalechet’ be outlawed as retribution for cremating people. I admit that I was surprised that there is a minister named Itzhak Cohen but not as surprised as when he said “they have absorbed the customs of the destroyers of the Jewish nation.” Rather unpleasant in light of all the good guys who risked their lives just to make sure that King Saul had a proper burial. But how can our mere Biblical heroes compete with the superior spiritual authority of minister what’s his name?


Minister Cohen also expanded on the issue and explained that he personally, “would put an end to those who would resume the execution of a final solution.” For those who don’t get it, he is talking about the Nazis.


As a member of the second generation I can say, almost personally, that the problem with the Nazis was not that they incinerated the bodies of my relatives but they did it while my family was still alive. I also want to ask with all due respect of Minister Cohen that he not try to justify his insane objectives by recruiting our deceased who in any case never voted for Shas and never authorized the party to speak on their behalf about anything.


Does the honorable minister mean the belief of some that burning a body is liable to create a problem come the resurrection of the dead? If so, he adds his ignorance of Judaism to his disrespect for the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.


According to this theory, 1.5 million children who were sent to the gas chambers will never be reborn. Neither will the Rambam, the Ramban, the Rashi, all the Talmudic scholars, and the heroes of the Bible whose bones disintegrated into more dust over the years than whatever is left of the clients of ‘Alei Shalechet. As a believing skeptic I know that if God wants, he knows where to find me even if I am hiding inside of a dwarf.


פרסום ראשון: 09.07.07, 16:01
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