A dying father has instructed that his body be cremated upon death. His adult children are uncomfortable with that request. Does Jewish tradition, as Reform Jews understand it, obligate them to honor their father’s wish?
In 2006 the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Responsa Committee studied the practice of cremation, deliberated this question, and issued a responsum, summarized below.
Our tradition teaches that it is a mitzvah to honor a dying person’s request, provided that the person does not ask us to commit a sin. Cremation is not a sin, because neither the Torah nor rabbinic halachah ever explicitly prohibited the practice. The Central Conference of American Rabbis accepted cremation as a legitimate option in an 1892 resolution stating: “In case we should be invited to officiate as ministers of religion at the cremation of a departed co-religionist, we ought not to refuse on the plea that cremation be anti-Jewish or anti-religion.” The 1961 Rabbi’s Manual reaffirmed this decision, noting that “most Reform Jews have gone beyond this cautious tolerance and have accepted cremation as an entirely proper procedure. A number of leading Reform rabbis have requested that their bodies be cremated.” And many Reform families have continued the practice.
In the nineteenth century, however, when cremation became increasingly common in Western countries, Orthodox rabbis began to define it as a transgression against Jewish law; and over the past several decades, the CCAR has spoken more negatively of the practice, preferring traditional burial, a universal Jewish custom until relatively recent times. As the responsum puts it: “The CCAR discourages the choice of cremation; it supports the choice of traditional burial; and Reform thought today recognizes the right of our people to adopt traditional standards of religious practice that previous generations of Reform Jews may have abandoned.”
In light of this complex history, the Responsa Committee concluded that adult children are entitled to honor their father’s request, but they are not obligated to do so. They may refuse on grounds of conscience and Jewish values—so long as they have made no promise, explicit or implicit, that they will fulfill their parent’s wishes.
Rabbi Mark Washofsky is professor of Rabbinics at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati and chairman of the CCAR’s Responsa Committee. To read the full responsum please visit http://ccarnet.org/documentsandpositions/responsa and type “5766.2” into the search box.