QUESTION: On two separate occasions a husband and wife have left instructions that their cremated remains be scattered. In one instance, over a high mountain which meant a great deal to them. In the other, along the banks of the Potomac River as the family had been dedicated to the protection of this river basin. Should a rabbi participate in a funeral if he knows in advance that the cremated remains are not to be buried but will be scattered? May he participate in a memorial service after the remains have been dispersed in accordance with the wishes of the deceased? (Rabbi Arnold S. Task, Greensboro NC)
ANSWER: Burial of the dead was taken for granted by our forefathers and there were no discussions about whether burial should take place, but rather how soon it must occur. In addition the burial of individuals of doubtful status (criminals, apostates, etc.) was discussed. We Reform Jews have had no hesitation about burying the ashes of those who have been cremated (W. Jacob (ed) American Reform Responsa #100). Although there have been many Orthodox objections to cremation and a number of Orthodox authorities would not officiate at a funeral of those who were to be cremated (Dudaeh Hasadeh #16; Meyer Lerner Hayei Olam; Michael Higger Halakhot Veaggadot). However, the English Orthodox rabbinate permits rabbis to officiate both at a funeral and at the burial of the ashes of those who have been are cremated (Rules of the Burial Society of the United Synagogue). The American Conservative rabbinate permits a rabbi to officiate at the funeral but not at the cemetery in order to discourage cremation (Proceedings, Rabbinical Assembly 1939 p 156). In each of these instances as well as our own the burial of the ashes has been assumed.
Burial has traditionally been seen as a form of atonement (M San 6.6; 46b; Tur and Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 362; Moses Feinstein Igrot Mosheh Yoreh Deah #143). Furthermore, burial permitted appropriate honors to be extended to the dead through the various rituals connected with the funeral and in subsequent years through visits to the cemetery. The large number of recent Reform responsa which have dealt with burial, funerals, qaddish, tombstones, and Yahrzeit, indicate the religious and psychological value of these rituals and customs.
Scattering the ashes removes one source of comfort which may help the surviving family overcome their grief and resume a normal life. We would, therefore, discourage the scattering of ashes and encourage their burial in an appropriate fashion in the cemetery. Furthermore, as cremation possesses new and different overtones for us, after the Holocaust, we have discouraged the practice.
There is nothing within Reform Jewish practice or custom which would prohibit a rabbi from officiating at a funeral or a memorial service of those who are to be cremated even when the ashes will not be buried.