The Meaning of Burial

When a body is buried, the ground is opened up. A tear in the earth appears. The gaping hole declares, “Something is not right here — there is a tear in the human fabric of life. Take note, world, don’t rush through this moment. Recognize the loss. Remember the life.” When the body is gently placed in the ground, a new message is given — the calm return to nature, the source of life.

“After decades of denying our mortality, Americans are starting to accept, if not embrace, this fundamental fact of biology: that the natural end of all life is decomposition and decay. Instead of fighting it at almost all cost as we have for the better part of the last century — with toxic chemicals, bulletproof metal caskets, and the concrete bunker that is the burial vault, all of which will only delay, not halt, the inevitable — we’re finally seeing the wisdom of allowing Mother Nature to run her natural course.” 6

The earth, the dirt, is indeed “the Mother of All Life.” The earth provides our sustenance, like a mother who gives birth to and feeds her young. And to it all creatures return, to begin the cycle once again. As British dramatist Francis Beaumont put it,

Upon my buried body lay
Lightly, gently, earth”7

Returning the body of someone we cared for to the earth is a sign of love. Do we burn things we love?

Spiritual Ramifications

Jewish mysticism compares body and soul to a loving husband and wife. When a husband departs this world, can a loving wife immediately move on? The bond is so close that time is needed to adjust to the new reality. The soul, then, does not abandon the body immediately after death. Since it is confused and disoriented, it stays close to what it knows best — its body. It hovers around the body until burial, and shares in the mourning, going back and forth from grave site to the shivah house.11

The soul is fully aware of what is happening to ‘its’ body.12 One way to understand this soul-knowledge is to consider that upon its departure from the physical world, the soul achieves greater closeness and knowledge of God, Who is the Source of all knowledge, and thus the soul shares in God’s knowledge of what is happening to its body on earth. This is why traditional Jewish funeral practices are marked by tremendous respect for the body — it is painful for a soul to see its body mishandled, abandoned, or defiled.

Traditional Jewish burial gives the soul great comfort, and provides the transition it requires to enter the purely spiritual world. Cremation, on the other hand, causes the soul tremendous — and unnecessary — agony. The soul cries out in pain as its partner, the body, is burned rather than caringly returned to its Source. The soul is prevented from gently returning to God, instead needing to go through a lengthy and difficult struggle to adjust to a new reality.

To Die as a Jew

For thousands of years, Jews and Judaism have insisted on proper Jewish burial. Roughly 2,000 years ago, Roman historian Tacitus wrote that “the Jews bury rather than burn their dead.” Even today, the Israel Defense Forces spends and enormous amount of time, energy, money and resources trying to ensure proper Jewish burial for its fallen. Jews will fly around the world in order to recover ancient Torah Scroll and give it a proper burial – and people are more important than even a Torah Scroll..

By choosing burial, we are aligning ourselves with Jewish history and the Jewish people. In our ‘last act’ on the planet, choosing Jewish burial means declaring, “I may not have been a perfect Jew. But I’m proud to be one, and I want to die as a Jew.”