Rabbis fight cremations in US

By Sue Fishkoff, California, June 18, 2009
Follow The JC on Twitter

As increasing numbers of Americans choose cremation, a national organisation of liberal burial societies is trying to promote burial among the non-Orthodox.

“We’re going on the positive offensive rather than the negative ‘don’t get cremated’ route,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, president of Kavod v’Nichum, a North American consortium of burial societies.

Executive Director David Zinner hoped to come away from their annual conference last week with a national initiative encouraging burial, but that did not prove easy. “We can’t push people before they are ready,” he said.

Discouraging cremation is an uphill battle. Although it goes against Jewish law, just 13 per cent of American Jews are Orthodox, the only movement that forbids cremation. The Conservative movement, to which 25 per cent of American Jews subscribe, discourages but does not forbid it. More than 60 per cent are Reform, Reconstructionist or unaffiliated, and therefore the most likely to choose cremation.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, said more than 50 per cent of the funerals in his congregation involve cremation, a number other participants found extremely high, although all acknowledged the practice was on the rise.

More Jewish cemeteries are permitting the burial of ashes. Dan Brodsky of the New Mt Sinai Cemetery in St Louis, Missouri, said 19 per cent of the burials in his cemetery now involve ashes, whereas three years ago, that number was in single digits.

The main reason is cost. A straw poll of delegates found a traditional Jewish burial ranges from £3,000 to £7,300, depending on the city, versus an average £600 for cremation. Many synagogues or burial societies will subsidise burial for indigent Jews, but that is not an attractive option for most families. Delegates agreed that the community should do more to bring down costs, including encouraging simple wooden caskets, before the organisation could come out against cremation.

Most people believe cremation is also a better use of natural resources. Kelman pointed out that the carbon released during cremation, as well as the energy used for burning, has much greater environmental impact.

A third reason is America’s growing intermarriage rate, which now tops 50 per cent. Traditional Jewish cemeteries will not bury non-Jews, meaning half of American Jewish families are de facto turned away at the gate.

Conference organisers brought in rabbis to argue against cremation, and also pointed to the psychological wisdom of Jewish burial ritual, which forces people to face the finality of death by watching their loved ones be lowered into the ground. Several speakers told of congregants who cremated their relatives and then had trouble believing the person was really gone. Many also brought up the Holocaust as compelling argument never to engage in cremation.

Growing numbers of liberal congregations are organising their own cemeteries to allow for burial of non-Jewish family members. Meanwhile, existing Jewish cemeteries find themselves in a bind, as they may be owned by one congregation but are called upon to serve a wider Jewish community with varying religious standards.

Ralph Zuckerman, executive director of Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham, Michigan, had to tell an elderly man that his wife of 40 years could not be buried with him, because she had never converted. Clover Hill is owned by a Conservative synagogue but also serves Reform and unaffiliated Jews, and Zuckerman said he will open special sections for ashes and intermarried families this summer.

Last updated: 2:12pm, July 26 2011