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By Jewish Law, we are required to bury a body, even a Gentile body, as soon as possible after death, and as close as possible to the location of death (with some exceptions).
The respect and honor we must accord the body of a niftar (someone who has passed away) is in some ways greater than the respect we might accord that person when he was alive. I am not required to drop everything I am doing or to spend all my money to support a stranger, for example. But if I am walking in the forest, or even on a street in a city, and I find an abandoned body lying on the ground, I am required to take a day off from work and sink all my resources into burying or getting that body buried properly. A live person might be able to turn to someone else, if I need to go to work, but a dead body cannot turn to anyone. A dead person is completely at the mercy of whoever is willing to help.
And on the other hand, doing a good deed for a dead body is a greater deed than doing it for a live person, because there is always the chance that the live person might pay you back. A dead person cannot return any favors. Therefore, anything you do for it is pure altruism, and is therefore a greater deed.
What is a body? Is a body simply a husk, merely a carbon-based organic entity with some slick programming to generate responses to sensory input? Certainly not. As Judaism explains it, the human body is the physical element in a complex and ultimately spiritual being. The human body is not simply the housing for the spiritual essences, it is part and parcel of the combined human being -- a being that will ultimately exist in greater spiritual form in the World to Come, after the Resurrection. For when the World to Come begins, and we stand up at the Resurrection, we will stand up with combined body and soul, though both will be raised to a much higher spiritual level than at which we stand today.
Even if the body were only the mere housing for the spiritual essences of the human being, that alone would grant special status to the body, and that alone would demand our gratitude and respect for the body. But the body is not merely the casing for the soul, a vessel with which to hold the soul. The body is an integral part of the human being!
When a Torah Scroll becomes invalid and unfit for use, it is reverently buried with full honors, because it is a holy item, even if currently it is unusable. We must always accord it respect for the status it once held, and it will always retain holiness.
Most nations of the world honor their veterans, because of the service they have performed in the past. They will forever be respected and praised, even when they are long past the age when they are able to continue to perform as they did in the army.
So too is it with the human body. The Creator gave us physical matter with which to perform the Commandments. It is through the agency of the physical that we attain the spiritual. Some cultures believe that the road to spirituality is only through isolation and meditation. While Judaism subscribes to occasional isolation and meditation, the primary road to holiness is the use of the physical for spiritual purposes. When we pray, what do we use? We use our mouths, and of course our thoughts. When we give charity, what do we use? We use our hands, and of course our emotions. So is it with all good deeds.
And thus, we owe a great debt to our bodies. Our bodies allow us to attain the holiness that the Creator has prepared for us.
And it is not simply our souls that attain that holiness. Would it be fair for the body to do work and not receive reward? No, for when we do any good deed, our physical bodies actually attain holiness through that deed.
How, then, can we commit an act of desecration, of sacrilege, by burning a body, as if it has no meaning or importance to us?
So important is the respect we are required for a dead body, that the Torah forbids a body to remain unburied overnight -- even if it is the body of a convicted criminal! The Torah commands that the body of a criminal who has received capital punishment must not be allowed to remain unburied overnight. If the Torah is so particular about a man who has used his body to sin, all the more so for people who have never committed criminal offenses!
And perhaps I can add one more concept, of my own, a supposition that has occurred to me. We are required to allow the body to decompose. The Torah commands that we do not embalm a body, that we use only the plainest of pine coffins, and that we always bury under the ground. Perhaps we are required to return to the soil that which has come from the soil. "You are dust, and to dust you shall return," says the Torah (Genesis 3:19).
Perhaps, I wonder, if it could be that we must allow the body to do one last good deed, all by itself, without even the aid of the soul that gives it life. This is the only good deed that a body can do alone, and perhaps that good deed gives it that extra bit of merit and holiness that affords its Resurrection. Thus, we are commanded to allow the body to give to the earth elements that will enrich the soil, that will allow the earth itself to rejuvenate, in a sense to resurrect, and will further the growth of life on earth. The death of a body can, that way, bring about life on earth.
When a body is cremated, the ashes will also eventually degenerate, but they will never offer the earth what a dead body can offer the earth. Perhaps that is another reason we are forbidden to cremate a body. But that is just my own suggestion, not a statement found in Jewish Law.
Let me conclude with a brief story. A friend of mine once told me that she did not believe in burial, only in cremation. Then her cat died. She could not bear the thought that there would be no way to visit her beloved pet. She buried the cat in her back yard, and for a long time often visited her.
While this is not the reason for burial, it is often a comfort to the living, and another way to keep alive the memory of those who have passed on.
It is our fervent prayer that all pain and suffering in the world end, and may Hashem the Creator "put an end to death forever, and wipe the tears off all faces, and put an end to His people's shame throughout the earth. . ." (Isaiah 25:8).
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