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Home » Chayei Sara, Death, Questions of Ethics

Chayei Sarah: Why We Bury

Submitted by on November 4, 2017 – 10:34 pmNo Comment | 6,621 views

After the binding of Isaac, Abraham discovered that his wife Sarah had passed, and he hurried from Jerusalem to Hebron to eulogise, mourn and bury her.  This is the first description of a burial in the Torah, which gives us an opportunity to discuss the question of why we bury.

Many prefer cremation for a variety of reasons. Some are concerned about cemetery crowding and prefer an urn on the mantlepiece.  Others cremate their loved ones to honor their wishes. Judaism commands us to bury our dead and if possible on the day of passing.[1]

My first rabbinical challenge involved this delicate subject. I was on the job for about a week when I learned of a woman who had passed away and her family intended to honor her wishes for cremation. I did not want to pressure the family at such a delicate time and called a senior colleague to ask for advice. I was told that I must at least try to encourage burial. I made a cold call to the family and made my best pitch, but as expected was turned down.

I learned an important lesson that day. This conversation cannot wait until the family faces a practical decision. We rabbis must talk about this subject while it is still theoretical.

After creating Adam from the earth, G-d declared, “You are dust and to dust you shall return”.[2]

Our sages taught that G-d concluded, “the clod of earth from which you were made is theft in your hands”. While there are many ways to understand this saying, one explanation is this. Your body is not yours, it belongs to me. I allow you to use it for the duration of your life, but once you pass on, I expect you to return it to me. We cannot literally return our bodies to G-d, but we can deposit it in the earth from which it came. If we fail to return it, and hold on to it, it is theft in our hands.[3]

Our sages taught that Adam was created from a clod of earth on the Temple Mount–the very location upon which the Altar would stand many years later. In the words of our sages, “The human was created from his/her place of atonement”.

We learn from this that there is a strong link between the earth and our atonement. We were created from the clod of earth upon which the Altar of Atonement would later stand. And, our sages taught, that when we are laid to rest in the ground after passing, our soul begins the process of atonement.

Jewish mystics went further and provided a symmetrical insight. While the body came from the earth, the soul came from the heavens. After passing, the soul cannot return to the heavens, from which it came, before the body is returned to the earth from which it came. By preventing the body from returning to earth, we not only retard the soul’s atonement, but prevent it from accessing heaven.[4]

There is no way for us to appreciate these spiritual truths while we inhabit the physical plane. It is thus understandable if a Jew, who neither knows or believes in these truths, decides to forego burial. However, once we pass on and access a soulful state of consciousness, these truths become patently obvious. There is no question that the soul of the person who left instructions to be cremated, regrets this decision as soon as he or she passes on. This is why Judaism teaches us to bury our dead even if they leave instructions to the contrary. We are certain the deceased has changed his/her mind.[5]

G-d created an ecosystem with an intricate balance that perpetuates the cycle of life. The vegetable draws nutrients from the earth, the animal draws nutrients from the vegetable, the human draws nutrients from the animal, and then returns to the earth and becomes part of the soil. And the cycle of life begins again.[6] This symmetrical cycle is interrupted when any link in this chain breaks.

But there is more than the circular cycle of nature’s ecosystem. In and of itself, this cycle merely serves the purpose of self perpetuation. While it is true that we benefit from this system and are therefore dutybound to contribute to it, the absence of our individual contribution does not make a large dent.

The truth is that the human plays a profound role in this cycle and is much more than just another link in this chain. The human gives purpose to the entire cycle by using the energy he or she derives from the nutrients for holy purpose. When we eat earth or animal product and use the energy that we derived from them to perform a Mitzvah, the entire system is elevated in service to its Creator.

G-d created the universe for His glory. When an orange enhances G-d’s glory, it fulfills its purpose. When it decomposes without having contributed to G-d’s glory, it fails to fulfill its purpose. When we live seven or eight decades, we accumulate many Mitzvos and holy deeds. Each of these is stored in a special file that G-d keeps on our behalf. When we pass on and our soul ascends to heaven, all our Mitzvos, all the holy energy released into this world through our good deeds, ascend to G-d alongside our soul.[7]

We learned earlier that the soul cannot ascend to the heavens until the body descends from which it came. If the soul does not ascend, neither do its good deeds. This means that all the resources used by this person during a lifetime, which contributed to this person’s many good deeds, are all trapped here on earth, unable to fulfill their purpose and ascend to their rightful place in heaven.

Cherishing the Body
The body has served us well over the years as the instrument through which we fulfilled G-d’s will and performed good deeds. The body deserves to be cherished and treated with dignity. When we lovingly and respectfully return the body to it’s place–the earth from which it came, we show love and respect for our body. When we crush and cremate it, we show it the opposite of love and respect.

Finally, Jews believe strongly in the coming of Mashiach and the revival of the dead. The prophets taught that the dead will arise from the earth. If we refuse to place the body into the earth from which it will arise, we proclaim that we don’t believe that it will rise again, nor do we expect to ever see our loved ones again.[8]

So, why do we Jews bury our dead? Because it is an act of faith, an act of Mitzvah, an act of love, an act of environmental consciousness, an act of divine sensitivity, an act of obligation, and an act of respect.

[1] Deuteronomy 21:23. See Sanhedrin 46b for a discussion about atonement and same day burial.

[2] Genesis 3:19. This was not immediately after, but after Adam tasted the forbidden fruit.

[3] Bereishis Rabbah 20:10.

[4] Rabbi Chaim Vital, Eitz Hada’as Tov, 358.

[5] Maimonides, Hilchos Aveilus, 12:1. This argument is in addition to the simple fact that burial is a mitzvah and we are not permitted to obey a parent when they instruct us to violate a divine commandment.

[6] See Introduction to Perek Shirah.

[7] Igeres Kodesh ch. 28.

[8] Zohar, I:116.