Winehouse burial raises Jewish questions about tattoos, cremation

Your Jewish grandmother might have told you not to get a tattoo if you want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery when you die. If you ignored her, rest easy – not only progressive Jews, but Britain’s Orthodox Jews now have no problem with burying Jews with tattoos.

The question came up Tuesday as the heavily tattooed Amy Winehouse was laid to rest in a traditional Jewish ceremony in London. The funeral was conducted by a rabbi and the Winehouse family will sit shiva – the Jewish custom and tradition of receiving guests in their home – starting Tuesday night, Winehouse spokesman Chris Goodman said.

Winehouse was cremated, Goodman added – a more controversial practice among Jews.

Traditionally Jews do not cremate their dead because of the belief they will be resurrected when the messiah comes, said Nikki Saunders, a spokeswoman for Britain’s mainstream Orthodox movement, the United Synagogue.

“That can only happen if your body is intact,” Saunders said.

More liberal Jews don’t have that concern, though, explained Ben Rich of the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK.

“Physical resurrection isn’t something that progressive Jews believe in, so that isn’t a concern,” he said. Progressive Jews also don’t accept the Orthodox belief that cremation is the mutilation of a corpse, he said, since it is done respectfully, not maliciously.

“We have therefore been happy to allow cremation for those who want it,” he said, calling it “extremely common. It wouldn’t be anything to raise an eyebrow about in the progressive movement.”

In fact, he argued, there is Biblical precedent for cremation.

“If you go back to Biblical times, it is normal and there are references to King Saul being cremated,” he said.

There is a tradition of not burying people with tattoos, said progressive Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, but he said there didn’t seem to be much support for it in Jewish law, or halacha.

It seems to come from instructions in the Biblical book of Leviticus against marking one’s skin, he said.

“But this part of a whole series of Canaanite cultic practices which the Israelites were not supposed to imitate,” he said.

Reform Jews today would not disapprove of tattooing, he said dryly, “since we do see ourselves as in danger of impersonating Canaanite cultic practices.”

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