Death is a big business, and the business of the funeral industry is geared toward comforting the mourner and helping them accept the passing of their loved ones. Therefore, most funeral homes offer an array of funeral and burial options. But, many of these options are actually contrary to Jewish law.

One common option is embalming, the process by which a corpse is “preserved” with chemicals. This practice is best known for its use by the ancient Egyptians (think mummies). In fact, the Torah mentions two Biblical personalities who were embalmed, due to the honor that the Egyptians wished to bestow on them: Jacob and Joseph. Embalming, however, prevents the fulfillment of the Torah precept of “for dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). Additionally, the embalming process requires the removal of the body’s blood–and Jewish law requires a body be buried in as complete a state as possible.

Mausoleums, where bodies are placed in a vault, have also become common. This is often promoted to those who are uncomfortable with the thought of the body being buried in the ground. This method also prevents the return of the body to its original state of “dust.”

If the Torah prescribes that “to dust you will return,” it would seem that cremation should be the ideal form of Jewish burial. But, in truth, Jewish law also prohibits cremation because it destroys the body.

According to Jewish law, a body should be buried in a simple shroud and in a plain wooden box, enabling it to decompose naturally. In stating “to dust you shall return,” the Torah discretely underscores the importance of the cycle of life and death. Decomposition brings new life to the soil, which then brings forth vegetation to promote further life.

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