לֹא תָלִין נִבְלָתוֹ עַל הָעֵץ כִּי קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא – But you shall not leave his body on the tree overnight. Rather, you shall bury him on that [same] day.
Tzedakah pertains only to a living organism; tzedakah simply cannot be done for the deceased. Accordingly, if one encounters an unclaimed corpse, his obligation to bury it does not flow from the commandment of tzedakah. From an animal-physical perspective, the corpse lacks nothing and needs no assistance at all. In contrast to tzedakah, the gemilus chasadim that flows from love of one’s fellow is not directed toward man as an organic creature but rather toward his spiritual personality. Acts of benevolence are demanded not on account of animal-economic needs but because of the metaphysical tragedy of man. Upon becoming aware of the loneliness that bears down upon man and constantly gnaws at his heart, when feeling choked by the darkness of isolation and forlornness, man longs for redemption from the dungeon of his narrow and secluded existence. He craves connection with the thou, to include him in his joys as well as his sorrows. The obligation here is generated by human dignity, the dignity of a creature bearing qualities beyond the natural and the animal; this dignity requires benevolence from one man to his fellow. In this way, a person demonstrates his otherness and separateness from the animal kingdom, whose members exist in isolation, shut off from one another.
A person senses his suffering and aspires to ease the weight of his metaphysical burden, to unite individual beings. In this connection, he finds redemption for his tormented soul and a degree of stability in the face of life’s storms that sweep him away, willy-nilly, to distant places with no direction or purpose.
The needs of the tragic soul, grounded in human metaphysics and in the fate and destiny of man within the context of his distinctiveness from all other living creatures, are also included in the duty of gemilus chasadim: born of love of one’s fellow. And the duty is therefore all-encompassing, pertaining to both poor and rich, to actions related to money as well as those requiring personal exertion. It likewise includes both the dead and the living, for death is the most awful symbol of the tragedy that stretches across the background of human existence.
The failure and absurdity of life are highlighted by the human corpse. The curse and affliction that bear down on the self-aware being appear in all their dread upon this landscape over which hovers the fear of death, which mocks all. Here, human dignity poses an aggressive and powerful demand. Be benevolent to the dead; protect his dignity, which is also your dignity. Demonstrate that humanity maintains itself even in the face of death, even when confronted with destruction and nothingness. To be benevolent to the dead—that is true gemilus chasadim. (Halakhic Morality, pp. 175-176)