Why is Jewish burial so grave?

By Stephen Games, February 17, 2011

A few weeks ago, I attended a funeral at a church in London. I found the experience uplifting, consoling and appropriate to the emotion and sense of loss. It pains me to say that I’ve never felt that at a Jewish funeral.

The service took place in St Bride’s, designed by Wren in the 1670s, just off Fleet Street. The body was then buried elsewhere, in Highgate Cemetery. The settings were beautiful, and so was the ceremony. The powerful organ made the church tremble while we sang “Immortal, invisible, God only wise”; then four friends moved us to tears playing part of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor. Later, we filed silently through the woodland paths of the cemetery to the burial site, surrounded by trees and ivy and chirruping birds.

Admittedly, this funeral was exceptional even by English standards: not everyone has the taste to say goodbye to a loved one like this. But even if it had been a gangland funeral with a horse-drawn black cortege and the deceased’s name spelled out in flowers, it raised the question of why Jewish funerals can’t be more personalised. Why, in short, are our ceremonies, and the places they’re held in, so regimented and bleak?

Is the problem our religion, or halacha, or something else? In the nineteenth century, “gardens of rest” were designed by architects not just as containers for the dead but as public parks with a therapeutic function. Unfortunately, Judaism has become so go-it-alone, and funerary culture in this country is so defined by the Church of England, that to question our own practices can seem disloyal.

Flexibility is also not one of our trump cards: the Adass Yisroel Burial Society, for example, still refuses to allow women to accompany a coffin to the graveside; and because we try to bury within 24 hours, there usually isn’t enough latitude to do anything that isn’t standard.

Restrictions we thought religious were mere obstinacy

But there are other forces that work against us. Once, the United Synagogue Burial Society, which holds a thousand burials a year, wouldn’t let mourners deliver eulogies. Now, suddenly, they can. Restrictions we thought were religious turn out to have been mere obstinacy.

Or maybe it’s our sense of practicality. Although Anglo-Jewish cemeteries have traditionally been treeless, the US Burial Society now says it welcomes trees – but goes on to ask why anyone would want a tree to overhang a grave, as if unmoved by the fact that trees and tombstones are a defining image in English aesthetics.

For the Burial Society, falling leaves make stones dirty. The Society also thinks the best route to a grave is a straight line, and that granite and marble make the best tombstones, precisely because they’re resilient and don’t weather beautifully as limestone and sandstone do. That’s why Jewish cemeteries aren’t picturesque. No working Jewish cemetery, for example, has ever won a prize for its loveliness. Instead, they’re bare wastelands of stone.

One other issue concerns choice. Christians benefit from the Church of England’s being relatively decentralised, with churches controlling their own graveyards and not fussing about whom they serve. Simultaneously, any number of commercial firms make a good living providing customised facilities for the secular. Non-Jews have choice, and choice improves service.

Jewish funerals and cemeteries are grim because our burial societies operate as monopolies for the religious groups they serve. As such, they’re ill-equipped to perform better, just like government utilities before privatisation and competition.

There are exceptions. The Joint Jewish Burial Society, representing the Reform, Masorti, Liberal and independent communities, wants to plant a special area for woodland burials at its cemetery at Cheshunt. Its research in Berlin has also revealed a precedent for burying non-Jewish partners in the same cemetery – in areas connected by a discreet path, if not quite side by side.

And the US Burial Society has gone from insisting on burial within 24 hours to allowing funerals to be delayed to give time for principal mourners to fly home or for bodies to be flown to Israel.

But these are small concessions. Jewish funerals are still most memorable for their spartan facilities, freezing prayer halls, uncomfortable side benches, impossibly long walks, and chilly water at the hand-washing stations. At Bushey, the US Burial Society hopes to increase the size of its grounds by 50% but has no plans for better amenities.

Our entrepreneurial flair should have inspired us either to break up the cartels that serve us so unevenly, or compete to do the job better. It hasn’t, and so what ought to be a comforting experience remains grim, rushed and stressful. As a friend once commented, one needs the shivah to recover from the levoyah.

Stephen Games is an author and critic

Last updated: 1:11pm, February 24 2011