Q: With all due respect, I felt that your response to a recent question regarding cremation might have offended some readers. Your opinions that keeping ashes in an urn on the mantel seemed "creepy," and scattering them in public places "slightly ghoulish," were very strong. I'm sure some people find great comfort in having their loved ones' ashes with them. As well, it must be very gratifying to most people who choose to scatter ashes. I have no personal connection or experience with cremation. Any thoughts?
-- L., Lake Grove, NY
A: Thank you for your concern about the feelings of those who chose cremation over burial. I said in my column that although it's not the encouraged spiritual practice for Jews and Christians, I do respect the religious right of anyone who chooses cremation.
My deeper concern involves not only the spiritual value of having a place in a cemetery where family members can come for generations to remember and pray and tell stories, but also the idea of separating places of death from places of life. There is a wise Jewish custom of washing hands when returning home from a cemetery so that not even a particle of dust from a place of death enters our homes, which are places of life. This separation is, I believe, spiritually wise. The process of grief work requires both memory and separation.
Memory honors the dead, and separation honors the living. For that reason, placing an urn containing human remains on the mantel creates a very powerful death presence in the home. Also, when the owner of the house dies and the home is sold, what is to be done with the urn? An urn is not like Grandpa's watch. However, people must find their way to a spiritually comfortable solution to the problem of disposing of human remains.
Q: I'm very interested in the concept of "hell." Peter Townsend is a British theologian. He is a Christian but he's not working in religion. He intelligently points out that hell was an invention of the church to scare or control believers. How do you view the concept of hell?
-- A., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
A: I believe in heaven and hell because I believe in ultimate justice, where goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. However, I try not to do anything good in my life just for the sake of boosting my post mortem application letter to God at the pearly gates.
The rabbis taught that we should not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of a reward. The philosopher Immanuel Kant taught the same thing about ethics from a secular perspective (even though Kant was himself a pious Lutheran).
We should do good and avoid evil because good is rational and because it is God's will. We should avoid evil because it is irrational, spiritually degrading and against the will of God. If this gets me into heaven, terrific, but that's not why I behave the way I do (or want to do).
I am, however, not repulsed by the notion that the idea of hell might serve to scare people into lives of greater moral virtue. It's a low-level ethic, but it's better to have people do good for low-level spiritual reasons than to live like corrupt hedonists. Driving at the speed limit is a good idea, even if you only do it to avoid getting pulled over by a traffic cop.
Doing good to avoid parental punishment is also the way many children first learn morality, but it must never be the last way. As rabbi Ben Azzai taught: "The reward of a good deed, is the good deed itself." Sounds good to me, even if it also prevents me from eventually being measured for an asbestos suit!