foundation header

Jewish Cemetery, Burial and Mourning Customs

National Jewish Burial Society Tries to Stem Increased Cremation

This article, written by Sue Fishkoff was published by JTA, the Global News Service of the Jewish People, June 8, 2009.

BERKELEY, Calif (JTA) – With cremation on the rise and more Jewish cemeteries accepting ashes for burial, a national organization of Jewish burial societies is trying to promote traditional in-ground burial among liberal Jews.

“We’re going on the positive offensive rather than the negative ‘don’t get cremated’ route,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, president of Kavod v’Nichum, a consortium of burial societies, Jewish funeral homes and cemeteries, and founding rabbi of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, which hosted the group’s seventh national conference June 7-9.

Conference organizers brought in rabbinic speakers to present traditional Jewish sources that teach the human body should be returned after death to the dust from which it was created. According to the Orthodox position, that means burying the body in its entirety, in anticipation of the revivification of the dead that will take place in the final Messianic Age.

Organizers and speakers pointed to the psychological wisdom of Jewish burial ritual, which places limits on the mourning period and forces mourners to face the finality of death by watching their loved ones be lowered into the ground.

“I can’t tell you the number of times people who have had close relatives cremated come to me and say it’s as if they just disappeared.” Kelman said. “There’s no closure for them.”

Many also brought up the burning of Jewish bodies during the Holocaust as a compelling argument never to engage in such a practice voluntarily.

Kavod v’Nichum’s executive director, David Zinner, hoped to leave the three-day gathering with a group initiative encouraging traditional burial, but that did not prove as easy as he had hoped.

“It seems like a simple issue, but we can’t push people before they are ready,” Zinner acknowledged.

Most of the 100 participants represented non-Orthodox congregations that are struggling with members’ rising demand for cremation.

While the Orthodox movement forbids cremation as a desecration, the Reform permits it and Conservatives take a middle ground, strongly advising against the practice but not forbidding rabbis from participating in funerals before the body is actually burned.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Emanu-El said more than 50 percent of the funerals in his congregation involve cremation–a number other participants found extremely high, although they all acknowledged that cremation was on the rise in their communities.

Dan Brodsky of the New Mount Sinai Cemetery in St. Louis said 19 percent of the burials in his cemetery involve cremains, whereas three years ago the number was in the single digits.

Nationally, Rabbi Richard Address, director of Jewish family concerns for the Union for Reform Judaism, said he has noticed a “slight” increase in cremation among the Reform communities he visits.

Pearce suggested the practice is more prevalent on the West Coast, largely due to ecological concerns–many Westerners feel in-ground burial is a wasteful use of limited resources.

In fact, according to Kelman, who is spearheading a project to create the country’s first “green” Jewish cemetery just north of San Francisco, said cremation releases a great deal of carcinogenic materials into the atmosphere and uses more energy than in-ground burial.

The high cost of traditional burial was cited as the main reason behind the Jews’ growing interest in cremation. A straw poll of the room yielded an average cost of $5,000 to $12,000 for a traditional Jewish funeral, including the cost of buying the plot, versus $1,000 or so for cremation.

Although the conference was unable to come up with a unified position statement opposing cremation, there was consensus that the greater Jewish community should do more to bring down those costs, including encouraging simple wooden caskets, before the organization could in good conscience promote in-ground burial.

Many Jewish cemeteries find themselves in a bind, as they may be owned by one congregation but are called upon to serve a wider Jewish community with varying religious standards.

Gary Webne, co-director of the Conservative-owned Richmond Beth-El Cemetery Corp. in Richmond, Va., said that many Jews in his community have asked why the cemetery will not bury cremains.

“There are people interested in saving land and resources, a rethinking that’s beginning to emerge,” he said. “Rules are not necessarily set in stone, and we need to take modern needs into consideration.”

Ralph Zuckman, executive director of Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham, Mich., recalled the day he had to tell an elderly man that his wife of 40 years could not be buried with him because she had never converted to Judaism. Tears rolled down the man’s face.

“The unaffiliated are the majority, and most of them don’t know anything about the Jewish traditions around death,” Zuckman said, adding that his cemetery, which is owned by a Conservative synagogue but serves Reform, Orthodox and the unaffiliated, will open special sections for cremains and intermarried families this summer.

“I can’t put my head in the sand and say it’s halachically incorrect,” Zuckman said. “It’s going to happen, and we need to serve the entire community.”

But it shouldn’t be up to cemetery directors to make these decisions. he concluded.

Zinner agreed, saying it was up to local burial societies to educate their Jewish communities about Jewish views on death, mourning and burial.

Rabbi Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim in Danville, Calif., noted that those views are now in flux.

“At a time of such environmental concern, when kashrut is being reframed in terms of ethical kashrut, what is an ethical burial?” he asked.

Rabbi Margaret Holub of the unaffiliated Mendocino Coast Jewish Community in Albion, Calif., was one of the few in the room who accepted cremation as a legitimate option–or at least was willing to admit to holding that position.

“I see it as a reasonable, thoughtful option.” she said. “It’s very difficult to tell someone to spend $6,000 to $8,000 or more for burial. I can understand why some Jews would do something else that still shows honor for their dead.”

Ground Burial & Cremation

The following remarks were delivered by Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce,  Plenary Speaker at the 7th Annual North American Chevra Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery Conference, held in June 2009, Berkeley, California.

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, PhD
Congregation Emanu-El – San Francisco, California

To set the tone for my remarks this morning, I have to share R. Lee Sharpe’s (1870-1950) poem “A Bag of Tools”:

Isn’t it strange that princes and kings
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And common people like you and me
Are builders for all eternity?
To each is given a bag of tools
A piece of clay and a book of rules
And each must fashion ere life has flown
A stumbling block or a stepping-stone

We are all given a bag of tools, a piece of clay, and a book of rules; what we builders do with tools, clay and rules determines whether they represent stumbling blocks or stepping stones to eternal life after death. We all have our own images of how to mold the clay of ritual and follow the rules of what is proper and acceptable and what is impure and contaminated, but the real impact will come from how we position, market, or sell immortality and life after death.

Although I officiate at cremations (and upwards of 50% of all funerals that I officiate at Congregration Emanu-El involve cremation), I do not like what they represent or how these procedures distort the underlying rationale of Jewish burial customs and practices and what they ought to do to help mourners deal with the reality of death and the healing process.

Nevertheless, the things that bother me, and most of you, about cremation are almost never on the radar screens of those who give the bodies of their loved ones over to the flames of the crematorium. I do not think we do a particularly good job in helping people understand why in-ground burial is preferable to cremation.

This morning, I would like to address some of the psychological and theological underpinnings of the increase in cremation among contemporary Jews, not to make a case for it, but to better understand why it has such currency today. People vote with their feet, and denial of funeral services is not the answer to those who select cremation because such an action will not stop them from choosing cremation, but education will!

Let me begin by reminding you that all Jewish burial and mourning customs are designed to help people deal with the reality that death is real and final. When mourners hear the tearing of “kriah” (fabric) or the thud of earth on a coffin, they invariably shed tears. There is no room for denial or the fantasy that this is all a nightmare from which they will awake. If you have ever dealt with a mourner in open denial of a death, as I have, then you know how important these reminders of death’s finality are. When a body is missing and an urn is present or absent at a funeral, mourners often are deprived of the finality of death. There is something surreal and illusory about a ceremony without a body or grave. Over the years, people who were not present at a funeral and/or did not see the body of a loved one before burial have told me that they always believed that they would one day turn a corner and see the dead person alive. Of course this feeds into the funeral industry’s standard of protecting people from the harsh realities of death. They never use the word “corpse,” everything at the cemetery is covered over with Astro turf; often burial does not take place until the family has left the grave.

We deal with people who cannot decide if children should be included in a funeral. They are conflicted because they hope to protect the child from death but in reality they do their progeny a disservice by mystifying death as a taboo that belongs to the adult world of secrets. Contrary to many who are uncomfortable viewing a body, I believe that seeing the body before burial is very important in order to emphasize the finality of death. When you see a corpse in a pine box, there is little room for denial of death. I remember one parent who was upset because his 10-year old daughter wanted to see grandma before the funeral and burial. He remembered being haunted by having been forced as a child to look at his dead grandparent. I asked him who he was protecting–himself or his daughter? He relented and allowed her to see the body.

One more thing: I find that the final disposal of ashes to be profoundly disrespectful to the deceased. There is a bizarre quality to having a box of ashes stashed in a closet for years because of ambivalence over what to do next or how to let go. One woman showed up in my office with 2-dozen 35mm canisters and asked me to help her scoop her husband’s ashes into them so that she could distribute him in all of the places that they loved.

It is not difficult in the post-Holocaust world to make a case for not burning Jewish bodies. Given recent history, it is personally repugnant to me to burn bodies. I find the procedure spooky. I shudder when I think that a body is burned and the remains, or “cremains,” as the industry likes to call ashes, are then run through a grinder to pulverize bones into a gray powder. Nevertheless, this is most often not a consideration or even on the radar screen for those who choose cremation over in-ground burial for their loved ones. Over the years, I have come to understand some of the motivations that place Jews at odds with custom/halacha that effectively bars cremation.

1.  Plain and simple…people do not like dirt and germs. You see the all-pervasive Purell dispensers–purse and pocket size and those in cafeteria lines and other public places. We are all compulsive about germs to one degree or another. As an aside, our sanitized world is giving rise to the suspicion that the increase in things like childhood asthma and other illnesses are the result of not having enough contact with germs that, as it turns out, build immunity. Compulsive hand washing, for example is only heightened by the germophobia that is being acted out in bathrooms where people use paper towels to open doors and shut off water taps, in people “air” kissing, not wanting to shake hands with someone who has cold symptoms. I noted with amusement people’s behavior over the recent threat of–you should forgive the expression–swine flu. I met  congregant in a restaurant and I shook hands with him and he immediately took out a bottle of Purell, smeared some on his hands and offered me some, which I politely declined. We spoke for a few minutes and, having forgotten the previous scene, said good-bye and mindless shook his hand again; and again, out came the bottle of Purell.

Years ago, not knowing that an undergraduate classmate’s father was deceased, he responded to my question of what his father did for a living by saying: “He catches worms.” As a young rabbi, a woman at a burial sternly rebuked me: “Rabbi, don’t you ever shovel dirt on me.” I suspect that to some, burial in earth seems dirty and unsanitary as opposed to ashes that have been purified by fire and are “clean” and “sanitary.” Sturdier, more expensive coffins are marketed to those who subconsciously want to forestall the inevitable disintegration of a body by microbes and other flesh-eating creatures. Cleanliness is equated with holiness. Our sacred texts constantly emphasize ritual disqualification because of impurity. Coming before God pure and unblemished and the exclusion of Cohanim from the presence of a body make a case for not wanting a rotting body to be the vehicle that transports one to the afterlife. I will have more to say about that in a minute.

For a long time, cryogenics was in vogue because it offered the opportunity of being frozen and preserved for eternity or better still, until a cure might be found for the fatal disease that would allow a mate to literally live again. In short, phobias play into the decision to prefer cremation and avoid traditional in-ground burial. And lest you think I am making this up, there are long lists of phobias, a number of which centers around death and burial:

2.  There is an irrational element to burial. Do we feel pain? Could we be buried alive? Edgar Allen Poe once referred to such illogical thoughts as the “imp of the perverse.” He capitalized on this phenomenon in stories that featured the portrayal of such fear. I remember not long ago watching the final scene of Aida and feeling uncomfortable knowing that the main protagonists were going to be sealed alive in a tomb. Being sealed in a tomb in contrast to having ashes sprinkled over the bay or ocean feels claustrophobic. I remember, as a student once saying to a Hebrew Union College professor that I thought the thing I would like least about being dead is that there would be no light. He responded by asking, “How do you know?” That question was personally liberating.

3.  I do not believe that we provide Jews with a theological understanding of most things, but especially the theology of death, resurrection, and eternal life. And even if we teach techyat hamatim (life after death), most Jews do not believe it. Given what Christianity did to the pharisaic concepts of resurrection, eternal life, punishment and reward, many of us are just uncomfortable teaching the theological meaning behind the liturgy. Take for example, the supposed child-like song, “An Only Kid” found in the Hagadah. It is much more than a Jewish version of “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” because it ends with God slaying the Angel of Death. Chad Gadyah champions the notion that God will slay death and humanity will not longer be limited by mortal years. It holds out the hope that one day, death will be meaningless because it will be the portal to eternal life. Trying to convince people of why cremation is inappropriate when we’ve done little to lay the groundwork for such a position leaves little time to have people process and accept this important notion. Often the debate is carried out at the time of death when decisions have to be made quickly and often without the benefit of reasoned discussion or rational consideration. I remember one family that solved the conflict between children of whether or not to bury or cremate by burying the deceased, only to have the body later dug up for cremation after everyone left.

Only once did a woman come up with a reason to be cremated that I had difficulty arguing with. She had suffered her entire life with cerebral palsy and walked with leg braces and crutches for what seemed to her to be endless years. She told me that she wanted to be cremated because she did not want to have that body when the Messiah arrived and put people back into their bodies.

In place of the notion of resurrection and immortality, we tend to look toward a different kind of everlasting life that was best expressed by Waldemar Argow in his book What do Religious Liberals Believe? (Antioch Press, 1950). His explanation of what contemporary liberals hold to be immortality helps us understand why the debate over cremation and resurrection is so irrelevant to so many. These words were written over a half a century ago:

Religious liberals believe in the immortality of ideals, and values; they believe in the immortality of personal influence by which we live on in the lives of other persons and shape this world to a fairer dream; and most assuredly they believe in the immortality of the life force of the universe  seen most clearly in the process of evolution and in the annual miracle of returning spring.

Here is a way of thinking about immortality, which gives no blanket guarantees, but offers instead a wonderful promise. If you will dedicate yourself to the service of those ideal values and emergent purposes in the universe we have identified with God, you will not be swept upward to a golden heaven, but you will be swept onward by that creative life force of which you have made yourself a part, swept forward and onward until the human race arrives at last at that goal of perfection and completion which liberals believe may be seen as the end purpose of man’s grand adventure-epic on this little whirling ball of dust under the eternal stars.

If this is, indeed, the way most people see their immortality, when what difference does it make what happens to the body after death make? We are falling down on the job because this kind of immortality and not resurrection and eternal life is what we teach!

4.  Protecting the environment and shifting ceremonial needs are major features of the movement toward cremation. Many believe that cemeteries are ecologically damaging to the environment even though in many cities cemeteries are the only real open spaces not overbuilt and polluted by human activity. But to many, taking up a spot for eternity means that that the small piece of land will never be utilized for anything productive. In a place like Japan where land is of such a premium that is an issue solved by small family burial plots that receive generations of ashes piled upon generations of ashes. Furthermore, in our religion-by-menu era having ashes scattered provides the comfort of being returned to and being at one with nature and “eternity.”

You may be interested in knowing that for almost two decades, Congregation Emanu-El has operated a vegetable garden in an unused portion of the congregation’s cemetery where volunteers tend the Pe’ah Garden, the largest provider of fresh vegetables to the SF Food Bank–over two tons of fresh vegetables are grown and donated by volunteers every year. In so doing, we have taken sacred land devoted to death and re-consecrated it for life.

5.  Family mobility–People are no longer rooted in a place of work, retirement, or intergenerational familarity. The decision of where to bury when the survivors will move on to one or more distant locations in later years only complicates the choice of if and where to bury.

See: for articles on teshuvot.