With the tremendous increase of cremations in this country, this question has truly become a “burning issue”! A decade ago, over 20% of Americans who died were cremated. By 2005 the rate had grown to 32%, with the Cremation Association of North America forecasting that by 2025 more than half of Americans will choose to have their remains cremated rather than interred. No studies I know of show what percentage of those Americans are Jews, but no doubt it will not be an insignificant number.
The reasons people make such a choice are varied. Many, ecologically inclined, wish to leave the least possible of a footprint on the planet.
Many Jews, as you mention, recoil from the very thought of cremation as it recalls recent, vivid memories of the ghoulish crimes of the Third Reich.
Judaism’s insistence on burial rather than cremation predates Nazi crimes. The Jewish practice flows from a profound recognition of the Torah’s teachings that man was created in the “Image of God”. Our charge to “honor the dead” is predicated on the body’s being the recipient of that Image; honoring the body after it has lost its life is a way to honor God Himself. Our belief is that not only the soul, but the body as well, is infused with holiness. The body is a partner to the soul, without which the soul would be incapable of performing even the most simple of mitzvos. (Even those mitzvos which are fulfilled by thought alone, such as believing in God and loving Him, can only be fulfilled by going beyond the physicality of the body to elevate one’s self to that belief or emotion. This is a profound subject in its own right).
It is for this reason we have a strong tradition based on Jewish sources that the final “day of reward”, or the “world to come”, will not merely be a time of reward for the souls alone; rather the bodies will be rejoined with their souls in a very majestic way. The two partners, body and soul, will together bask in the final bliss.
To willingly make a choice to have the body burned is to deny that partnership, that holiness, and is, sadly, a choice which calls into question the person’s portion in that unique, final reward.
Although a cremation is forbidden by Jewish Law, if that be the choice of your mother, it would not preclude you from attending her funeral or reciting the kaddish. She still will have been your mother and a Jew – this act does not erase her Jewishness.
Once we’re on the subject, it goes without saying that the millions of our holy, martyred brethren who were cremated by the bestial Nazis will not lose any of the bliss and reward we mentioned above. On the contrary, any Jew killed because of their Jewishness will receive their final recompense in a way that defies the imagination in its greatness and intensity. As for their bodies; since their incineration was performed against their will, their bodies will be recombined with their souls. This is because their bodies which were burned because of their Jewishness are of such a spiritual nature that God will have no problem using their holy ashes to reconstitute them, much as He created the first man from the dust of the earth.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried