So, I was watching the Bishop of Rome's funeral last Friday on TV (which Israeli TV carried live) & I was struck by how one of the officiants referred to the late Karol Wojtyla's being "committed to the ground" or some such language. It hit me; he's not being put in the ground at all. His embalmed corpse was placed in a multi-layered coffin (one of which, I heard, was made out of zinc), which will be in some kind of vault, i.e. his remains will never come into contact withe bare soil.
The (orthodox) Jewish way of death could not be more different. Embalming the deceased is absolutely forbidden by (orthodox) Jewish law (as is cremation).
If you, legitimately, ask how this jibes with what Genesis 50 tells us, I've heard the following explanations: 1) The events of Genesis 50 occurred before the Torah was given; the rules were a little different then. 2) Joseph had Jacob embalmed only enough so that his body would not start to decay until it had been duly buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron; 3) Given his holiness & sanctity, Jacob's body, in any case, would not have begun to decay until it had been buried in the Holy Land & Joseph had his father embalmed as per the foregoing so that the Egyptians would not think that the Hebrews were sorcerers when they saw that Jacob's body was not decaying; & 4) Ditto 2) above for Joseph himself, with his body miraculously not decaying until laid to rest in Shechem (Nablus) many years later by Joshua.
So, as I've said, Embalming the deceased is absolutely forbidden by (orthodox) Jewish law (as is cremation). Jewish law also requires that no cosmetics of any kind be applied to the deceased, that the deceased not be displayed in any way whatsoever & that the deceased be buried as soon as possible after death, even the same day. (Coffins are only used where required by civil law; otherwise, as in Israel, the deceased is interred wrapped in an opaque white shroud.)
American Rabbi Maurice Lamm (author of The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning
For example, the prohibition of both cremation (the unnaturally speedy disposal of the dead) and embalming (the unnatural preservation of the dead), bespeaks a philosophy of man and his relationship to God and nature:
Repugnance for the mutilation of a body expresses a reverence for man, because he was created in God's image.
"As he came, so shall he go," says Ecclesiastes. Just as a newborn child is immediately washed and enters this world clean and pure, so he who departs this world must be cleansed and made pure through the religious ritual called taharah, "purification."
The taharah is performed by the Chevra Kadisha (the Holy Society, i.e. the Burial Society), consisting of Jews who are knowledgeable in the area of traditional duties, and can display proper respect for the deceased. In addition to the physical cleansing and preparation of the body for burial, they also recite the required prayers asking God for forgiveness for any sins the deceased may have committed, and praying that God may guard him and grant him eternal peace.
Jewish tradition recognizes the democracy of death. It therefore demands that all Jews be buried in the same type of garment -- a simple white shroud. Wealthy or poor, all are equal before God, and that which determines their reward is not what they wear, but what they are. Almost 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Gamaliel instituted this practice so that the poor would not be shamed and the wealthy would not vie with each other in displaying the costliness of their burial clothes.
The clothes to be worn should be appropriate for one who is shortly to stand in judgment before God Almighty, Master of the universe and Creator of man. Therefore, they should be simple, handmade, perfectly clean, and white. These shrouds symbolize purity, simplicity, and dignity.
Cremation is never permitted. The deceased must be interred, bodily, in the earth. It is forbidden -- in every and any circumstance -- to reduce the dead to ash in a crematorium. It is an offensive act, for it does violence to the spirit and letter of Jewish law, which never, in the long past, sanctioned the ancient pagan practice of burning on the pyre.
The Jewish abhorrence of cremation has already been noted by Tacitus, the Roman historian of the first century CE, who remarked upon what appeared to be a distinguishing characteristic that Jews buried, rather than burned, their dead.
In ancient days, the Talmud informs us, fragrant flowers and spices were used at the funeral to offset the odor of the decaying body. Today, this is no longer essential and they should not be used at Jewish funerals at all.
One of my rabbis writes:
Upon death, the soul goes through a painful separation from the body, which until now had housed the soul. This process of disengagement occurs as the body decays. When the body is buried, it decays slowly, thereby giving comfort to the soul as it disengages from the body.
This decay is crucial, which is why Jewish law forbids embalming or burial in a mausoleum, which would in fact delay the decaying process. Also, Jews are buried in a wooden casket, which decays more rapidly. Similarly, Jewish law dictates that burial take place as soon as possible after death. (In Israel, funerals are often on the same day as the death.) All this is for the benefit of the soul.
One reason that Judaism prohibits cremation is that the soul would suffer great shock due to the unnaturally sudden disengagement from the body. As the Talmud says: Burial is not for the sake of the living, but rather for the dead. (Sanhedrin 47a)
What about the millions of Jews cremated in Nazi ovens? The Almighty certainly guarded their souls from needless agony. I think similarly in this case, where the man did not ask to be cremated, his soul is not accountable for what transpired.
We see embalming as sinful because it a) retards the Biblically-mandated process of natural decomposition and b) it is tantamount to mutilation of the corpse. On both counts we see it as a gross affront to the deceased.
So, my questions for my Orthodox friends are:
1) Does Orthodox doctrine have an official position regarding embalming and/or cremation? If either are permitted, a) why and b) are they optional/mandatory? I'm especially curious about embalming, because a cursory glances at sites such as http://www.wyfda.org/basics_3.html
tells me that the widespread & routine embalming of corpses is a fairly recent practice.
2) What does Orthodox doctrine have to say about displaying the deceased? Is it optional/mandatory/forbidden? (Displaying the deceased is likewise absolutely forbidden by Jewish law.)
3) Could someone please either describe for me, or guide me to a website (parallel to this one http://www.jewfaq.org/death.htm
) that would explain, Orthodox custom & practice regarding the death-burial-mourning process? I am curious & would like to learn.