Rabbis wrestle with cremation amid its growing appeal to Jews
Not wanting to spend eternity in a casket, it was Pittsburgh native Norman Schwartz’s wish to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered when he died.
Which left his son, Howard, with some difficult arrangements to make.
“We ran into some issues,” said Schwartz, speaking from his home in Pinehurst, N.C., “but we were fortunate enough to get around them.”
While the first rabbi Schwartz contacted said he could not officiate at a memorial service for a person who was cremated, the son eventually was referred to Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons, who agreed to preside over the service.
“We had a nice service,” Schwartz said, “and I was able to fulfill my dad’s desire. His ashes will be scattered over a golf course in Pinehurst; he loved to golf.”
Thirty years ago, cremation was virtually nonexistent among Jews. Now, statistics show that almost one third of North American Jews are choosing cremation, according to Sharon Brody, licensed funeral director and supervisor at Ralph Schugar Funeral Chapel.
“I think the [cremation] rate is increasing,” Brody said. “We [Schugar’s] specialize in traditional Jewish burials, so we try to steer the family in that direction. But we do help families who come to us and want cremation.”
“The Jewish cremation rate in North America is at 30 percent,” according to Brody, citing statistics available to her from trade papers. “The national cremation rate is 36 percent, so we are not too far behind.”
In Pittsburgh, however, Brody believes the cremation rate among Jews is only in the 10 to 15 percent range.
“The figures are not that high here,” she said. “The figures are much higher on the West Coast and in South Florida. In Denver, the rate is between 40 and 45 percent.”
Jews have traditionally chosen burial over cremation in line with their longstanding belief in ultimate resurrection, according to Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“Judaism’s historic belief in the resurrection of the dead is predicated on the idea that G-d will raise us from the grave by reassembling our remains there into living flesh,” Aaron said in an e-mail. “Cremation is seen as an unnatural process that negates the opportunity for resurrection since the body was intentionally destroyed rather than naturally decomposed. Traditionally, such an act of intentional destruction of something G-d created in his image was understood as disrespectful to G-d, and forfeited the merit of resurrection.”
Only intentional destruction of the body would disqualify someone from resurrection, he added, so someone who died in a tragedy, such as the Holocaust or in the World Trade Center on 9/11, would still be eligible.
The Orthodox and Conservative movements still adhere to the prohibition against cremation, although the Reform movement allows it, and the Conservative movement allows rabbis to participate in memorial services of the cremated under certain conditions.
“We have not seen a huge increase in requests for cremation,” said Rabbi Yaier Lehrer, spiritual leader of Adat Shalom near Fox Chapel, which follows the standards and practices of the Conservative movement. “But when presented with such a request, I do counsel against it. It’s hard because very often, the family makes the request because the deceased themselves had that request. How do you say to someone you love and care about, ‘You made this request, but we’re not going to do it?’ ”
While Pittsburgh has seen only a modest increase in Jewish cremations in recent years, the number will surely climb as more Jews write into their wills their wishes to be cremated when the time comes.
Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of the Conservative Beth El Congregation of the South Hills has only presided over two memorial services in 20 years for Jews who were cremated. Despite the fact that both the Orthodox and Conservative movements prohibit cremation, he foresees an increase in the practice.
“I know it will be increasing because people are coming to me and talking about it and putting it in their wills,” he said.
While economics used to be the primary motive for cremation — which is much less costly than a traditional burial — the reasons why people choose cremation have “changed drastically” in recent years. Now, the desire to be cremated, according to Greembaum, is motivated by such things as fear of the dark, or fear of being in a box.
“I once had a person tell me he wanted to be cremated because he had a fear of flying,” Greenbaum said, “and he knew he would have to be flown to another location after he died to be buried.”
Whenever someone approaches him to discuss cremation, Greenbaum says he always begins his reply by saying, “it is against Jewish law.”
“They always know that [it is prohibited],” he said, “but the question is then ‘what if?’ My answer is even if a person chooses to break Jewish law, we still have the responsibility of the mitzva of taking care of the dead. We will still do the ritual washing of the body. And many Jewish cemeteries, including Beth El’s, will allow the burial of cremains.”
The burning of millions of Jews in the Holocaust likely shook the foundation of Jews’ belief that the body and soul were one and the same for purposes of resurrection.
“I truly believe the Holocaust changed everything for us,” Greenbaum said. “We really don’t believe that the millions who were cremated against their will were cut off from the world to come.
“The Holocaust changed our theology,” he added, “but cremation is still against Jewish law. But people choosing cremation is a reality today. The way we deal with that reality is the question.”
If a family chooses to have a loved one cremated, sitting shiva for the deceased and saying kaddish would still be appropriate, according to Lehrer.
“No matter how the body has been disposed of, they [the survivors] are still mourners,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell them they couldn’t say kaddish. You don’t want to compound their pain.”
While the Reform movement does not prohibit cremation, a 1990 responsum (rabbinic opinion) discourages the practice because of the tragic overtones following the Holocaust.
Although he has not seen a marked increase in cremation in recent years, Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation says the practice is “not uncommon, not unusual and not unfamiliar.”
“Burial is obviously the default,” Bisno said. “But every Jewish funeral home I’ve ever worked with makes cremation available.”
While cremation is a viable choice in the Reform movement — and is left to the discretion of individual families — there are reasons why some may prefer burial.
While not steering a family in any particular direction, Bisno does explain to families seeking counsel why, post-Holocaust, cremation can be an off-putting notion. Cremation also can deprive loved ones of a place to visit the deceased if the cremains are not buried, he said.
Rabbi Mark Mahler, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of South Hills, a Reform congregation, discourages cremation “based on Jewish tradition,” he said, and the overwhelming majority of his congregation still chooses traditional burial.
“When the Temple Emanuel cemetery was created circa 1982, allowance was made for the interment of cremains,” Mahler wrote in an e-mail. “Over the years since, perhaps five people’s cremains have been interred there. I have noticed no trend toward more cremation. If anything, perhaps there is less, at least from the narrow perspective of the Temple Emanuel cemetery.”
The issue of cremation came to a head in Israel not too long ago.
Israel’s first crematorium, Aley Shalechet, opened in 2005 in Hibbat Zion. Six months later, the Chief Rabbinate ruled that a person who wishes to be cremated after his death could not have a Jewish burial of his ashes, and that traditional mourning rituals, including a shiva and kaddish, would not be allowed.
In 2007, Judge Moshe Sobol, sitting in the Jerusalem district court, ruled that an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor could be cremated in accordance with the wishes of his family, thus confirming that cremation in Israel is, in fact, legal, even if not condoned by the Chief Rabbinate.
Sobol’s decision incensed many Israelis, believing that cremation not only is prohibited by the Torah, but is also a reminder of the ovens used by Nazis to murder Jews during World War II.
In 2007, arsonists set fire to the crematorium at Hibbat Zion, which sustained severe damage. It was rebuilt in October of that year, and has been functioning ever since.
Still, a 2002 survey by Geocartographia in Israel found that only about 10 percent of Israeli Jews would choose cremation.
Clearly, most Jews still choose burial for their loved ones, perhaps leaning on the familiar traditions of death for reasons of comfort, if nothing else.
“If you’ve seen this tradition over your life, you’re going to identify with that tradition,” said Lehrer. “It may be the best way to help you deal with your grief. Tradition is a learned response, and in the tradition of death and dying, I would say that Judaism has it right.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)