Hayyei Sarah
For the week of November 19, 2011 / 22 Heshvan 5772
Torah: Bereshit / Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
Haftarah: 1 Kings 1:1-31


Burial vs. Cremation

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites. (Bereshit / Genesis 23:19, 20; ESV)

How the handling of garbage has changed through the years. When I was a kid I remember living in a neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings which all had incinerators. We would throw our garbage down a chute (nothing was recycled back then) and then about once a week, it would be burned. I imagine they had a process for the remains, but the bulk of it simply went up in smoke.

Oh, how we have come a long way in our attempt to preserve the purity of our environment. It makes me feel good to see how much we recycle and how little we truly throw out. I am glad the authorities make sure to show my garbage (and recycling) the greatest care possible in order to preserve our precious planet for future generations.

Yet in spite of the increasing popularity and complexity of recycling programs, garbage dumps continue to grow. There is one not far from where we live that is becoming a small mountain range.

I find it interesting how we used to burn garbage and bury people, and now we bury garbage and burn people. I know cremation has been around for a long time, but in cultures most influenced by biblical truth, it is only more recently that it has become as popular as it is.

When Abraham's wife, Sarah, died, Abraham went to great bother and expense to arrange a burial plot for her. It would have been much easier to cremate her, but he didn't. Burying dead bodies is not something simply based on custom and culture. It arose out of an understanding of the preciousness of the body and the hope of afterlife - an afterlife associated with that body. God instructed Moses that cremation was reserved for those who committed very immoral acts (Vayikra / Leviticus 20:14; 21:9). Otherwise God's people were buried.

I don't think that the burial of garbage and the burning of the dead are due to a conscious decision to honor garbage over people. But then again maybe it is.

We are so consumed with material goods, while people are deemed disposable. I haven't done the research but it wouldn't surprise me if we spent more money and time on electronic gadgets than on our relationships. I refer to real relationships such as marriage and family, the kind of relationships that build community for future generations.

Of course I know we dispose of gadgets as much as we do people, but could it be that the burning of bodies represents the human attempt to obliterate all obligation to our God-given relationships? Maybe the growing popularity of cremation isn't a direct reflection of the devaluation of people and relationships. Maybe it's just a coincidence.

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