When you’re a reporter heading for a war zone, as I was when I flew to Afghanistan several years ago, you prepare for the possibility that you won’t return. The lawyer who helped me revise my will said I should also include my wishes for the disposal of my remains.
I’d thought about this now and then, as we all do, in a speculative, sometimes playful way. Famed novelist Philip Roth once walked through a few cemeteries looking for a burial spot, rejecting one because “I won’t be happy. Who will I talk to?” and another because “there was no leg room.”
I liked the idea of a green burial, with no chemicals or barriers to prevent the body from dissolving gradually into the earth, but there was no place offering that option near my home. My next choice was cremation.
Although fire made me squeamish, it was pleasant to imagine my ashes being scattered from a peak in the Rocky Mountains or from a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean, returning nutrients to the earth or sea. But Jewish law prohibits cremation. While I’m not Orthodox, I celebrate the rituals and love the tradition. Reform Judaism does permit cremation, but I needed to know why it’s been forbidden for more than 2,000 years.
I turned to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 89, who was ordained in the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn and co-founded the Jewish Renewal movement. He said that from a historical perspective, in the rabbinic period, around 70 A.D., wood was scarce in the holy land and if bodies had been burned, the land would have been denuded of trees.
The theological explanation, he said, is that the soul comes from above, but the body was formed of dust from the ground and must be returned to the ground intact. The body, made in God’s image, is a temporary gift to the individual, who is obliged to care for it. Jewish law forbids mutilating a corpse, so cremation is seen as an act of desecration. But the most common reason given for banning cremation, Zalman said, is that “when the Messiah comes, God will resurrect all the bodies of the dead. The bones need to be preserved so they can be reconstituted.”
Zalman had accepted this view until he visited Auschwitz in 1976. His father fled with his wife and children from the Nazis in Vienna, but his other relatives did not. “I stood in front of the ovens where my uncle and cousins were burned and thought, how come I was so lucky?” Zalman said. “Why wasn’t I among them? I felt that kinship and I began to think that when the time comes, why should I take up precious space in the earth? Wouldn’t it make more sense, ecologically, to be returned to ashes? Then I could have mine sent to Auschwitz and joined with theirs.”
He removed his glasses, rubbing his eyes. “I started to speak out, saying that cremation is the right thing to do, not a sin. I was quoted in a Jewish newspaper in Detroit, and you should see the trouble I had after that!”
Members of Chabad, as the Lubavitcher community is also known, called Zalman and demanded that he recant what the newspaper quoted. He refused.
Later, he went to pray with a different sect in Brooklyn and heard two young men behind him discussing Zalman’s heresy. “Why should we have to wait till he dies?” one said. “Let’s burn him now.”
After praying, an Orthodox man stopped Zalman on the street, warning him that if he insists on cremation, “You won’t be resurrected.”
Zalman nodded, thinking back to Vienna in 1938. His family was from rural Poland but had moved to Vienna for work. As Hitler rose to power, Zalman’s father had a strong instinct to flee with his family to the West. His brother, Akiva, who was also working in Vienna, wanted to return to Poland. “He thought he’d be safe there because it wasn’t under Hitler yet,” Zalman recalled. “My father told him, ‘No, we go west, we don’t go to Poland. I’ll share everything I have, every bite of food with you, but please, don’t go back there.’ ”
Nevertheless, Akiva returned to Oswiecim, Poland, where he was later arrested and forced to build concentration camps in the town, which the Germans renamed Auschwitz. Akiva and his family were among the first to be gassed.
Zalman returned his attention to the Orthodox man on the street in Brooklyn. “OK,” he said. “If God decides not to resurrect the people who were burned at Auschwitz, He can leave me out of it, too.”
That settled it for me. I could see fire as an act of solidarity. And because an increasing number of Jewish cemeteries are accepting ashes for burial, I could, if I wished, rest with my ancestors.
Adapted from Davidson’s most recent book, “The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery.” To read more, visit saradavidson.com.