There is an old saying: “You cannot evade death and taxes.” Every April 15th we are reminded about taxes. Death seems far more remote and distant—out of our frame of reference. We are not sure exactly how to deal or plan for it; fortunately, Judaism gives us clear directives.
The first directive is how we look at life. Is it random, without any Divine plan, or are we created for a purpose? Does Judaism believe in the world to come? What about reincarnation? Finally, what is the Jewish attitude to burial and death?
Human life is the fusion of two opposites, the body and the soul. The essence of each human is a spark of the Divine. Death is the separation of the two, the body is interred and the soul lives on.
According to the Torah the soul rises to a spiritual domain and continues to exist. The soul is subject for judgement for the life lived in this world. If the soul has reached its purpose it remains, if not Jewish mysticism teaches us the soul can be infused with a new life. Reincarnation in Judaism is called Gilgul Haneshomos- the recycling of souls.
As the carrier of the G-dly soul, the body is imbued with sanctity and must be treated with the greatest respect and dignity. Judaism mandates the body be interred in the ground as soon as possible. The body is prepared for burial with a Taharah, literately, a purification. It is washed with water, placed into shrouds and buried in a simple wooden box. Many in Israel have the custom of burying in shrouds alone, without the casket. Mausoleums are prohibited by Jewish Law.
Because the body is considered holy, Jewish law forbids cremation. Jewish law goes as far as stating that if some intentionally cremates a loved one he is not permitted to sit Shivah—observe the week of mourning.
Judaism also teaches us to prepare for death. It should not fall on loved ones in a moment of crisis. Rather we should arrange for burial, purchase of a casket and a Taharah in advance. We should insure that all of this is done according to Jewish tradition.
Burying a person who has no loved one, or money, is called Chessed Shel Emes, a true act of kindness. It is a favor that cannot ever be repaid by the beneficiary.
There is a story told about a man who never did a good deed in this world. The prosecutors in the heavenly courts were filled with excitement, sure they would prevail. Just as the court was to give its ruling an angel popped up and said, “Hold on a moment, in 1954 he gave a nickel to a poor man.” The court was in consternation as there had been no other redeeming value in his life. Finally the judges said, “Give him back his nickel and let him go to hell.”
As the Talmud teaches us, in this world we have a unique opportunity to act with dignity and holiness, those Mitzvahs stand in our merit forever. Α
More at OCJewish.com/mourning. Rabbi David Eliezrie is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.