Q – I have always been under the impression that cremation and tatoos are forbidden by Jewish law. Yet the recent funeral for Amy Winehouse was very Jewish in nature although the singer — who was amply tattooed — had asked to be cremated. Is cremation now accepted in Jewish quarters?
A – The 27 year old British singer was cremated and yes, she was bedecked with tattoos . Since tattoos are a topic I’ve addressed recently on these pages, I’ll focus here on whether it was appropriate for her to have had a traditional Jewish funeral, with a rabbi, shiva and all the trappings, when her body was not laid to rest in the traditional Jewish manner.
Unlike other liberalizing trends in contemporary Jewish life, there has been no great clamor for cremation rights. So the ancient taboo has retained its potency – in theory at least. The practice of cremation is something foreign to Judaism, and that runs across the board, for all denominations. Surely the Holocaust plays into this in our generation (although I’ve recently heard of some Jews desiring TO be cremated precisely in order to show solidarity with Holocaust victims – a practice that in my mind is counterintuitive), but the rationale goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew. We believe that human beings are created in God’s image; there is something about each of us that is of infinite value. Our bodies are therefore sacred and should not be summarily destroyed. If we treat the dead with dignity, the hope is that we will treat the living with the same measure of respect. The Nazis did the opposite, of course, branding people like cattle, crushing them like insects and slaughtering them like sheep.
That having been said, rabbis should always be looking toward to needs of the mourners and in many cases officiate at memorial services and shivas, regardless of how the deceased was interred. There are rulings allowing for the interment of ashes in a Jewish cemetery. Some rabbis might even officiate at that burial and others would officiate, at the very least, at a service taking place elsewhere, before the cremation occurs.
Had I been asked to officiate at Winehouse’s cremation, my response, to quote her most popular song, would have been “No, no, no.” But I would have done the funeral, and with an immense sadness having far less to do with how she adorned the outside of her body than with the substances she put into it.
There’s no denying the tragic nature of this death, even as many of the details remain unknown. Winehouse’s honesty and fragility have had a deep impact on her fans and her death should be a wakeup call as to how we revel at watching celebrities self destruct (see Lohan: Lindsay and Sheen: Charlie).
A death like this should not be fodder for gossip columns. We should strive to salvage a modicum of dignity amidst the media circus that engulfed her soul long before the flames incinerated her body. The real ethical issue here is not how Amy’s corpse was destroyed after she died, but how so many burdens and pressures conspired to destroy her while she was alive.