The Burial and the Image of God

Prompt burial of the deceased helps to preserve the dignity of the human being, who is made in the image of God, even in death.

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Reprinted with permission from Finding Each Other in Judaism (UAHC Press).

The burial is to take place as soon as possible following death. Out of respect for the deceased, out of reverence for the image of God, it is not to be delayed.

This ritual tradition is based on a revealing interpretation of the biblical verse in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: "If a person has committed a sin worthy of death and he be put to death and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for he that is hanged is a reproach to God."

Why a reproach to God? A powerful rabbinic parable explains: "There were once twin brothers identical in their appearance. One was appointed king, while the other became a brigand and was hanged. Now when people passed by and saw the brigand hanging, they exclaimed, 'The king is hanged'" (Midrash Tannaimon Deuteronomy 21:23). The parable views God and the human being as twins, connected souls. To denigrate a human being is to desecrate God, to deface a human being is to defame God, to shed the blood of a human being is a reproach to God.

The Israeli novelist S. Agnon suggested that the Mourner's Kaddish, [a memorial prayer] which calls for magnifying God's name, is recited not only to comfort the human bereaved but to console the divine Creator, for whom the loss of every human being diminishes His glory. God is a mourner at every death of God's creations.

The inherent dignity of the individual is comparable to that of the Torah scroll. The death of an individual is like the burning of a Torah. In both instances, the witnesses to such events are required to rend their garments [as are all Jews at the funeral of a close relative].

The disqualified Torah cannot be used and the deceased have no mitzvot [commandments], but both are buried and honored. According to a rabbinic insight, the broken tablets of the law that Moses dropped were not discarded. The shattered tablets, which remind us of our failings, hold a place of honor in the ark of holiness beside the whole tablets of the law. Such too is the enduring sanctity of the divine image in life and death.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.