That the cremation rate hit 42.2% in the U.S. in 2011, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), is of little surprise given that cremation costs less than a quarter of a typical casket burial. According to CANA, the average cost of a cremation is $1,650, while the average cost of a burial is $7,300. But what is upsetting, even angering, many in the Jewish community is the increased rate of cremation amongst Jews. CANA keeps no records of cremation by specific religion, and any estimates of cremation rates amongst Jews as a group are entirely anecdotal. What is undeniable, though, is that more Jews are now choosing cremation than ever before, whatever their reasons.
Albert Bloomfield of Bloomfield-Cooper Jewish Chapels in New Jersey said that he’s seen a definite increase in the number of Jews opting for cremation at the funeral home over the past eighteen years, even though the overall rate remains slightly under 10%. The number of Jews who choose cremation varies widely based on geography with estimates ranging from as low as 3% at one funeral home in Seattle to as high as 10% at a funeral home in Philadelphia. Given Florida’s high population of elderly Jews, many of whom reside far from their children and other relatives, it is reportedly in contention, though no hard numbers are available, for the highest cremation rate of any Jewish community in America.
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a Conservative rabbi who leads Congregation Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, is not pleased with this rising trend. “I personally think that as a matter of Jewish law and tradition, that it is forbidden to cremate a body. I try not to push this button in a manipulative way, but after the Shoah, I think the thought of burning bodies is just unbearable — unbearable to me, at any rate.”
For Arie Rosen, 57, an executive at a tech company in New Jersey, and a child of Holocaust survivors, arguments like Kalmanofsky’s are not persuasive. “I differentiate between cremation - a burial method, and genocide - a crime against humanity. They are not one and the same,” he said. On the matter of traditional burial he opined, “It’s expensive and really a waste of good land and expensive wood to make a coffin that will rot also. Sooner or later the worms will get you. So in the end you're dust or ashes anyway.” Like many other Jews, his attachment to tradition is weakening, which is what seems to upset Jews like Kalmanofksy the most. “Times change. People change and adapt to new beliefs and social norms. This is the dynamism of a free society. What we consider ‘tradition’ today will surely not be in a decade or two, or even in a few years,” Rosen said.
Those in the Jewish community who view cremation as an unacceptable violation of Jewish law, have had some success in preventing cremations by offering financial assistance, when cost is the only motivating factor for cremation. Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, said, “To try to avoid cremation, we will make deals. We’ll adjust our price. If it comes down to money, in order to save somebody from being cremated, we’ll have to subsidize it more.” But for environmentally conscious Jews like Rosen, who believe it’s wasteful to reserve large sections of precious land for burial, or for Jews like the Weisenfelds, who are uncomfortable with the idea of their bodies decomposing in the ground, discounted burials are a non-starter.
For Jews who believe in the literal resurrection of the dead, which lies at the basis of the traditional Jewish prohibition against cremation, neither environmental concerns nor discomfort with decomposition will dissuade them from being buried in the traditional Jewish manner.
Avi Steiner, an Orthodox Jew in his fifties, sees only one option once he’s gone. “I keep Shabbat, kosher and all the other Jewish laws now that I’m alive. I intend to continue observing Jewish law even in death,” he said. “Cremation? Over my dead body!” he quipped. When told about the increased rate of cremation amongst Jews, he demurred. “It’s just wrong. They have the right to do what they want, but they’re making a bad decision.”
Lest we assume that the cremation debate is being played out with the Orthodox on one side and the Reform (and in some cases Conservative) on the other, Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck, senior rabbi of Reform synagogue Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey, proves that stances on the matter are not defined purely by denomination.
“We Jews view our bodies as gifts from God—tangible evidence of God’s love for us. In life we are forbidden to harm them, and in death we are commanded to treat them with dignity. Burying our loved ones is an act of preservation, of holding fast to that which God has given. This is the way we Jews honor our dead,” said Gluck.
Reactions amongst Jews to the concept of cremation range from indifference to strong disapproval, like that of Steiner, to severe outrage. In 2010, The Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia newspaper, ran a full page ad for a local cemetery with the words, “"Did you know ... Jewish people are being cremated?" printed in large capital letters. The ad spawned a barrage of angry letters and calls to the cemetery, as well as to the newspaper. Rabbis and Holocaust survivors expressed outrage that the cemetery would promote something that's considered taboo in Jewish tradition, both because of Jewish law and the association the process has with Nazi death camps.
For non-observant Jews like the Weisenfelds, reactions from their Orthodox friends to their decision to be cremated are more incredulous than indignant. "For real? Are you kidding?” Joe said one friend asked when Joe told him he wanted his ashes placed inside a coral reef in Hawaii. "I wish you would reconsider.” Joe said he would. “The reef can be in Florida instead of Hawaii…in the Jewish section.”
Attitudes such as those expressed by Weisenfeld draw passionate counter-arguments from Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, Director of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad HaRabonim of Queens and President of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha. A recognized expert in issues surrounding Jewish burial, Rabbi Zohn emphatically lays out the classical Torah perspective regarding burial and cremation. “The Torah specifically states in a posuk that a Jew must be buried after they die,” he told the Jewish Voice in an exclusive interview. “It is stressing the importance of giving kavod (respect) to a person, who was created in G-d’s image. In fact, the Torah even requires us to bury the body of a criminal who was sentenced to death by hanging shortly after the sentence is carried out, so that his body is not left overnight to hang in disgrace.”
Noting that all of the poskim (halachic authorities) agree that cremation is a total violation of Jewish law, Rabbi Zohn adds that it is a negation of the concept of techiyat hameisim (resurrection of the dead). “The Gemara says that a seed planted in the ground always grows and regenerates itself,” he explains in response to the comment made by Arie Rosen that in the end we all become dust or ashes. “But ashes – which is what’s left after a body is burned – have no DNA, as all of the body’s living organisms have been destroyed.” In this regard, Rabbi Zohn explains that a cemetery is referred to in Hebrew as a “beis hachaim” – which means a house of life – because the body will eventually come back to life, whereas ashes are essentially nothing, and can even be discarded according to both Jewish and American law. The rabbi further points out that most of those who opt for cremation have their ashes either placed in an urn or scattered over a wide area. “These people are not actually buried anywhere,” he bemoans, “so their family cannot even come to visit them.”
Rabbi Zohn informed the Jewish Voice that the rabbonim felt so strongly about this issue that they instituted a decree forbidding the remains of any cremated Jew to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. He also related how a posuk in Koheles states, “Dust returns to the earth, and the neshama (soul) returns to Hashem.” In the rabbi’s words, “This is a two-step process – once the dust of the person’s body returns to the earth through burial, their soul is able to go back to Hashem. The burial helps the neshama find its rightful rest.”
With his widespread experiences giving him the strong impression that as many as 30% of the national Jewish population is now opting for cremation, Rabbi Zohn admonished Orthodox Jews not to automatically assume that their non-traditional Jewish friends will arrange to have themselves buried at the end of life. “It’s important for Orthodox Jews to encourage other Jews they know to plan their burials,” he insists. “Cremation goes completely against Judaism’s core beliefs. Moreover, by purposefully arranging a burial, we demonstrate to our children that we treat the body which served us for so many years with respect.”
The Jewish burial expert concluded his remarks to the Jewish Voice by declaring “there is no greater mitzvah than a meis mitzvah – the commandment to ensure the burial of a deceased Jew takes precedence over all other mitzvot at that time. Rabbi Zohn also advised anyone interested in obtaining resources on this issue to visit the website www.peacefulreturn.org or to contact the National Association of Chevra Kadishah by either going to www.nasck.org or e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Eli Mansour, spiritual leader of Congregation Bet Yaakob in Brooklyn and a popular Torah lecturer, told the Jewish Voice that the Jewish religion places a high priority on kavod ha’met (respect for the deceased). “It is essential that we do anything in our power to maintain this respect,” the rabbi emphasized. “Cremation is the worst thing we could do to a body.” Readers who are interested in enjoying more of Rabbi Mansour’s Torah insights are encouraged to visit learntorah.com.
More of Uri Rosenrauch’s writing is available at www.urirosenrauch.com.