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Dust to Ashes

Rachel Ginsberg

Cremation among Jews has become so popular that funeral homes now offer “Jewish-style” cremations — a rabbi for the memorial service, a decorative urn with a Magen David

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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UNFRIENDLY FIRE There’s a notion that cremation is simpler, more environmentally friendly, less burdensome, neater, and more aesthetic. In reality, though, it isn’t quick or clean. In fact, it’s quite brutal

M ore Americans than ever are choosing to be cremated, according to a startling report released last week in Time magazine. The report declared that one out of every two Americans chose cremation over burial as of 2016, the first time the cremation rate topped the 50% mark in the US. You might read this and shrug, mumbling about how the world has gone meshugeh and thinking to yourself, “What does this have to do with me?”

But think again, because Jews generally tend to follow national trends, and burial practices are no exception. While the Jewish cremation rate hasn’t yet caught up with the escalating national average, it’s not far behind, estimated at about 40%. That means that four out of every ten Jews who die forgo halachically mandated burial in order to have their bodies incinerated instead. And if you have a nonreligious relative or acquaintance (who doesn’t?), that statistic could likely affect you too.

Back in 2012, Mishpacha ran an article about how an increasing number of Jews are choosing to have their remains cremated, in contravention to the fundamental Jewish principle that the body, even after death, is sacred and must not be desecrated — which was considered anathema even by unaffiliated Jews just a few decades ago. But in the last five years, the entire map has changed. Five years ago, it was estimated that cremation would hit 50% by the year 2027. In fact, that new national average was already attained in October of last year. States that are considered “least religious” have the highest cremation rates: Washington, hotbed of liberalism and alternative lifestyles, places first at 77.5%, followed by Oregon (74.8%) and Nevada (76.9%), while Bible Belt states like Alabama and Mississippi have the lowest rates (about 25%).

“Get the dialogue going before it’s too late,” says Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, who’s dedicated his life to Jewish burial. “Fix up your relationships and open the conversation”

Following the national statistics, cremations in the Jewish sector have become so popular that funeral homes in Florida and other areas with a high concentration of Jewish seniors now offer “Jewish-style” cremations — such as a rabbi for the memorial service (for either burial, scattering, or safekeeping of the ashes), a decorative urn with a Magen David, or the option of putting the ashes into a “Chai” locket.

Even traditionally run funeral homes and mortuaries are cashing in on the new trend. “Up until recently the funeral industry was fighting cremation,” says Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, founder and director of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), and considered the world’s foremost authority on Jewish burial. “A cremation often meant no funeral, so no revenue. The body would be shipped off to the crematory and the remains returned in an urn, and then the relatives would sit around the living room doing some sort of memorial ceremony. But somewhere along the line, the funeral industry decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so they’ve created an entire industry that promotes cremation in a way that they can also make money. I was recently in a Jewish funeral home in Las Vegas where the owner is building an entire wing for the cremation part of the business — it’s basically a catering hall where the celebration is part of the memorial service.”

That owner took his cue from places like Dallas, Texas, where cremation has increased from 24% to 42% in the last decade, and where the president of All Texas Cremation, who used to be a traditional funeral director, has shifted his business to cremation only. For his clients, who are largely affluent and well educated, his business helps plan cremations, services, and memorials through partnerships with event and entertainment centers around Dallas.

As cremation is now outpacing traditional burial across the US, the funeral industry has begun promoting all sorts of novelties in order to retain their revenues — offering fancy-to-funky urns, mixed blending of ashes of husband and wife, lockets containing pulverized remains, pieces of jewelry made of compressed ashes so that people can carry their relatives around their neck, and even a technique where ashes of loved ones can be put into a tattoo. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 670)

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