A burning question

A burning question

How is it that a mere 70 years after the Holocaust, a full one-third of American Jews are opting for cremation?

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Sybil Sage's personalized mosaic urn. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sybil Sage's personalized mosaic urn. (photo credit: Courtesy)

PALO ALTO, California — When Elizabeth Stone’s mother Ann died last year in San Mateo, California, attendants from the University of California-San Francisco Medical School came quickly to pick up her body. The same thing had happened 11 years earlier when her father Daniel died.

“They came to take the bodies immediately and sent a thank you letter saying that their bodies would be cremated at some point within several years, but that there would be no notification and no possibility of claiming the ashes,” she said.

While her parents’ decision to be cremated, in addition to donating their bodies to science, might have shocked some Jewish daughters, Stone was unfazed. Her German-immigrant grandparents had been cremated, and she herself plans to follow the family custom.

A 20-minute drive south, one can see the cremated remains of Sandra Slater’s deceased parents and sister stored in wooden boxes in Slater’s home in Palo Alto. Some of her sister’s ashes were also scattered in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and put into a sculpture that Slater made of her.

“My mother, father, and sister were cremated,” she said. “There was really never any question that that’s what would happen.” Slater, an environmental consultant, plans on also choosing cremation (or perhaps liquefaction, should the technology be properly developed) when her time comes. Burial just doesn’t appeal to her. “My dead grandfather was in a closed coffin,” she recalled. To her, “that was creepy.”

Increasing numbers of American Jews are choosing— contrary to age-old Jewish practice — to be have their remains burned, rather than buried

To the surprise and disdain of many Jews, less than 70 years post-Holocaust, cremation appears to be a new Jewish family tradition. Increasing numbers of American Jews are choosing — contrary to age-old Jewish practice — to have their remains burned, rather than buried. In many cases, once one family member opts for cremation, it becomes an acceptable choice for many, if not all, of the others.

Lest one think that this is only something happening in the historically more liberal, less affiliated Jewish community in Northern California, Doron Kornbluth, a Canadian-born Israeli educator and speaker, provides some staggering statistics in his new book, “Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View” (Mosaica Press, 2012). According to Kornbluth, a full one-third of American Jews are now opting for cremation.

Doron Kornbluth argues against cremation in his new book.(photo credit: Courtesy)
Doron Kornbluth argues against cremation in his new book. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“There are no exact numbers, but saying one-third of American Jews is a safe bet,” he told The Times of Israel. “Rabbi Elchonon Zohn from the Chevra Kadisha in Queens and the director of the National Association of Chevra Kadishas has estimated that 25% of the Jewish dead in Jewish funeral homes in the New York area are cremations. Outside of New York it is higher. And a huge number of people choosing cremation do not go to Jewish funeral homes,” he claimed.

Those, like Korbluth, who have been keeping a close eye on Jewish cremations are not shocked. “The numbers aren’t surprising. Most American Jews today are very mainstream American. The national rate is over 40% and it is predicted to be 50% by 2017 or latest 2020 at current rates. We are not that different,” Kornbluth said.

Josh Nathan-Kazis, who recently examined the issue for The Forward, found reliable statistics were not easy to come by, as the agencies that keep tabs on cremations do not separate out Jews from others. Nathan-Kazis discovered the Jewish cremation rate varied from city to city, but generally did not top 15%. According to his sources, fewer than 10% of New York Jews opt for cremation.

‘We don’t advertise that we do cremation in deference to the more traditional members of the community’

San Francisco Bay Area’s Wayne Rose reported to The Times of Israel a relatively steady rate of approximately 10%. Rose, a manager at a branch of Sinai Memorial Chapel, a non-profit religious corporation operated by the Jewish community, did concede that the rate might actually be higher.

“Some of my numbers may be off because there are some people who don’t think to come to Sinai Memorial for cremation,” he said. “We don’t advertise that we do cremation in deference to the more traditional members of the community.” Roosevelt Memorial Park in the Philadelphia area drew outrage in 2010 when it ran an ad in The Jewish Exponent touting cremation as an alternative to burial.

Whatever the exact numbers are, there has been an undeniable increase in cremation rates among Jews in recent generations. While Orthodoxy still prohibits cremation, the Conservative and Reform movements now allow their clergy to perform funerals for Jews who choose to be cremated. Although both liberal movements view cremation as dishonoring the dead and discourage Jews from doing it, they do allow for the burying of ashes in Jewish cemeteries.

Rabbi Robert S. Leib's was influenced by his experiences with cremation in Cape Town. (photo credit: Jeffrey H. Mantler)
Rabbi Robert S. Leib’s was influenced by his experiences with cremation in Cape Town. (photo credit: Jeffrey H. Mantler)

As senior rabbi for the past 23 years at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, one of the largest Reform congregations in the Philadelphia area, Rabbi Robert S. Leib has made clear that “I absolutely believe in in-ground burial first and foremost.” However, “I would certainly consent to officiating at a cremation,” he said.

Leib said that approximately 15% of his congregants choose cremation, and that they almost always do so without consulting him first. “I don’t intervene or intrude,” he said. “The family usually doesn’t ask me to be at the internment of the cremated remains in the ground or in a mausoleum. I officiate at a memorial service at the synagogue afterwards, which is more sanitized, and which I prefer, ritually speaking,” the rabbi added.

While Leib does not favor cremation, his personal experience from 1986 to 1989 as a young assistant rabbi in his hometown of Capetown, South Africa shaped his more understanding views of it. “There was a disproportionate number of Orthodox-affiliated Jews coming to the Reform temple asking for us to help them with cremation. It seemed to be in vogue, for lack of a better expression,” he recalled.

‘I was duty-bound to serve the wishes of these elderly Orthodox Jews who realized that there would be no children and grandchildren left there to oversee their graves’

It was a turbulent time, an era of white flight, of younger Jewish families leaving the country and leaving elderly relatives behind. “I was duty-bound to serve the wishes of these elderly Orthodox Jews who realized that there would be no children and grandchildren left there to oversee their graves.”

For the most part, American Jews opting for cremation are not facing such a crisis. Rather, they are making their choice based on what Kornbluth views as misguided assumptions. In his book, he presents arguments in favor of traditional Jewish burial and against the various reasons why so many contemporary American Jews think cremation is preferable.

In one chapter, he aims to debunk contentions that cremation is more environmentally sound than burial. He contends that graves are not gobbling up the landscape. He cites studies showing that cremation uses enormous amounts of electricity and fossil fuels and releases mercury and other toxic substances into the atmosphere. He writes that, contrary to popular belief, most environmentalists advocate burial (traditional Jewish style—without embalming or metal caskets) over cremation.

Contrary to popular belief, most environmentalists advocate burial without embalming or metal caskets over cremation

Additionally, Kornbluth breaks down costs to show that, short of direct cremation (whereby a body is burned and the ashes scattered without a service or burial), there is little financial savings to cremation. Rose, the funerary professional, begged to differ, saying that the difference in cost between cremation and burial has widened in recent years and that it is “less expensive, generally speaking, to cremate — even with a service.”

Rose also cited industry surveys that indicated that whereas 15 years ago, “personal philosophy” was the prime driver behind cremation, more recently it has been price. In his article, Nathan-Kazis quoted the executive director of the Cremation Association of North America as saying that the average cost of a cremation is $1,650, while the average cost of a burial is $7,300.

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, founder of Ways of Peace, a NY-based organization that promotes community justice and kindness through mindful responses to human needs throughout the life cycle, has been educating the Jewish community about end of life issues for many years. She believes that what underlies the Jewish trend toward cremation is not so much the practicalities of price, but rather “a real taboo about thinking and talking through funeral plans.” In our age of medical miracles and increased longevity, we deny death. “People don’t plan for the inevitable,” she told The Times.

‘Most people imagine themselves immediately transformed into the contents of an urn, without any understanding of the process involved’

Sandler-Phillips, who recently published an opinion piece in the Forward mentioning crematory scandals, is concerned that people are unaware of what actually happens when a body is cremated.

“Most people imagine themselves immediately transformed into the contents of an urn, without any understanding of the process involved,” she said.

That is more or less what happened with New York comedy writer and artist Sybil Sage. While looking at some pique assiette mosaic urns she had made, it suddenly occurred to her that she could make one for hers and her husband’s commingled ashes. The urn she created includes shards of their family dishes and family photos, serving as “a photo album celebrating life” for her son to have once his parents are gone.

Sybil Sage's personalized mosaic urn (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sybil Sage’s personalized mosaic urn (photo credit: Courtesy)

A secular Jew, Sage says, “It’s comforting to have made this decision.” She ran it by her husband and son, and neither objected to the idea of cremation. “We were fine with letting our son call the shots,” Sage noted. “If he had said no, then we would have agreed to be buried.”

The empty urn is complete and displayed in her home in the meantime. “It’s desensitizing, it’s comforting,” she reflected. “It’s made death more real, like another ritual in life.” She doubts she will reconsider cremation, and she brushes off the fact that her offering to make such urns for other Jews pushes some buttons. “Live and let live and let die,” Sage said.

Similarly, Stone, an educational consultant active in her Reform congregation, isn’t swayed by community pressure or millennia of Jewish tradition. She plans on donating her body to a medical school and being the third generation of her family to opt for cremation. One of her teenage daughters has already indicated that she, too, does not want to be buried.

Stone’s grandparents, refugees from Nazi Germany who arrived in San Francisco in 1937, were cremated and buried. “The family story was that their relatives died of pneumonia in Germany and were never deported to the camps,” making her relatively certain that Holocaust survivor guilt was not involved in the cremation choice (though Stone has since discovered that her maternal great-grandparents actually perished in a camp in Riga). Rather, she thinks it was their German sense of cost-saving practicality that drove their decision. She does not recall having had an unveiling for them, and she has never been back to visit their graves.

As for her parents’ decision to donate their bodies to medical science, “I found it very comforting that my parents, who were both teachers, were still contributing to the world.” What money would have been spent on funerals and burials went to a living memorial scholarship fund.

Stone is absolutely fine with not knowing her parents’ final resting place. She finds it “horribly disturbing to watch a casket being lowered into the ground.” She doesn’t need an urn of ashes, either. “I don’t need to see it to believe it,” she said. “I feel like they are within me and my children. I don’t need to be some place to be with my parents.”

Elizabeth Stone plans to be cremated like her parents and grandparents. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Elizabeth Stone plans to be cremated like her parents and grandparents. (photo credit: Meredith Charlson)
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