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… And Nothing Remains

Shimmy Blum

More Jews than ever are making the painful decision to have their remains cremated, instead of burial in a traditional Jewish fashion. Estranged from mitzvah observance, unfamiliar with the dignity accorded to a deceased Jew, they view cremation as the ecologically and economically sound choice. What do those Jews — distant from halachah and heritage — have to do with us? Why should we care, and what can we do? How can we assure that every Jew will depart from this earth in the most dignified po

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

fireApparently, the axiom of “Vi es chrisallt zich, azoi yiddilt zich” (as goes non-Jewish society, so goes the Jewish one) pertains even after the soul departs. Half a century ago, virtually all Americans were laid to rest in a casket, after an honorable funeral procession to the cemetery. But today, according to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), approximately 40% of deceased Americans have their remains cremated, with that percentage expected to rise to 60% by 2025.

Though the world’s major Western religions have long shunned cremation, Judaism and, l’havdil, Islam are the only faiths that remain unwaveringly opposed to incinerating human remains after death. In the 1970s, the Reform movement officially began allowing cremation and large segments of the Conservative movement now only mildly oppose or implicitly sanction the choice. Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, director of the chevra kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens and the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), estimates that approximately 30% of the American Jewish population already cremates and the numbers are increasing in proportion with the general American population.

The rise of the cremation phenomenon amongst American Jews has driven noted Israel-based author and lecturer Doron Kornbluth to take this on as a personal cause. While visiting Floridafour years ago, Kornbluth came across an advertisement for cremation in a local Jewish publication, and he began researching the phenomenon, culminating in his publication this year of a book on the topic entitled Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View. Kornbluth doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. “The Jewish community is at a tipping point now,” he says, with the likelihood that if nothing radical is done within the next few years to stem the tide, burial will occur almost exclusively in the frum community, chas v’shalom.

There are a variety of reasons given for the steep rise in cremation. One factor is the economic downturn of recent years. A cremation — from hospital pickup to urn delivery — can cost under $1,000, while it is nearly impossible to keep funeral costs — the ceremony, hearse, plot, burial and monument — under $8,000.

But the expense isn’t the only factor at play. Indeed, Rabbi Zohn estimates that cremations are rising as quickly amongst upper class Americans as amongst the poor — or perhaps faster. Another major reason given for the turn toward cremation is the sense that it is simpler, more environmentally friendly and less burdensome than transporting a body, burying it, and letting it remain in the ground to decompose over years — which is, in any event, a troubling thought to many.

Religious faith, though, remains the greatest determinative factor. The more closely one adheres to his religion’s doctrines, the less likely he is to cremate. One study found that a state’s cremation rates are correlated to the level of religious participation among its citizens.Oregon, for example, with the country’s lowest participation in organized religion inAmerica, has a cremation rate of 65%, whereas Bible Belt states likeAlabamaandMississippihave rates below 15% for the practice.

Floridais among the 13 states that already have cremation rates of over 50%, and its sizable population of elderly Jewish residents, many of whom reside far from their children and other relatives, has the highest cremation rate of any Jewish community inAmerica.

Beyond the cold statistics lie real stories about real people, and Rabbi Zohn has some rather hair-raising ones to share from personal experience. He came across one couple that insisted on being cremated despite both husband and wife being yeshivah graduates. One frail husband requested that his wife be cremated after her death despite her request to be buried, because he felt that it would be more “convenient” to have her ashes at home.


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