What the torah says about: human remains at 9/11 museum

By Rabbi Zvi Solomons

Torah For TodayAny Jew knows that the way we treat human beings is a mark of godliness. The fact that the Torah talks about the creation of mankind in terms of using God’s image (and we do not interpret that literally) implies that the human body has a sanctity derived from its Creator. In this sense, we are not supposed to tattoo or incise it when it is alive.

The only addition we are supposed to make (outside of medical treatment) is the completion of the human male form – the brit milah.

When a person dies, we are therefore to give that receptacle of the soul the utmost respect. We only allow autopsies in extremis. Orthodox Judaism does not allow the burning of the body. It is ironic we derive the laws to do with honouring the dead from the law of the hanged criminal.

The Torah tells us that he should not remain on the gallows for any length of time as it is a reproach to us as human beings that we leave him there. We bury the criminal immediately he is dead. Can we therefore allow ourselves to show less respect to a person who has not been put to death?

Those of us who are engaged with Israel may be aware of Zakka, a wonderful organisation that dedicates itself to helping clear up after terror incidents in Israel. They collect body parts of victims, and provide dignified burial in what is the most distressing of all situations. This is, alas, not a universal approach. Not every society wishes to provide burial for all victims of terror.

In New York, a museum has recently been opened to commemorate the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Artefacts relating to the terrorist attack are displayed, and unidentified human remains kept in a repository beneath the museum. The controversy over whether there should even be a museum dedicated to a terrorist attack, let alone one that has had such serious repercussions, is still raging.

Many family members of the thousands who died in the assault are outraged the human remains are kept unburied. As Jews, we are familiar with distressing history. Anyone who has been to Masada or Clifford’s Tower is aware there are locations that are inevitably and eternally linked with pain and death. Yet these no longer hold the remains of those who die there. Their bodies have gone to their eternal rest, and have been shown the respect they deserve.

It is therefore curious that the museum to the worst terror attack in history seems unable to afford those parts of the unidentified victims eternal rest. Bad enough is the sight of a burn mask of a living victim. Memorialising small parts of skin, bone and tissue is surely not the way to give the victims the dignity worthy even of a convicted killer.