Finding Common Ground on Cremation

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Cremation, long one of the most difficult subjects for Jewish families, is being broached more frequently than ever.

When Suzi Freedman’s mother, Anita Schipper, died in March, Freedman knew she was going to get her mother cremated — not because she believes in it, but because it was what her mother wanted.

Though she was 87, Schipper, a resident of the community Lions Gate Jewish retirement in Voorhees, N.J., had been relatively fit until shortly before her passing from infection and heart failure following complications from a surgical hip procedure.

“It was a shock. You’re crying. You’re sad, you’re angry,” Freedman said. “But because of your religion, you have to make decisions immediately.”

The whole process was distasteful to Freedman. Moreover, as a teacher of the Holocaust at a local religious school, she was aghast at the thought of Jews willingly incinerating their bodies, lifeless or no.

“When she said, ‘Just cremate me,’ I was horrified and I asked her, ‘Mom, why would you want to be cremated? It’s against our religion and it reminds me of how Jews were treated in the Holocaust.’ I always assumed we’d bury Mom,” Freedman said.

But like the rest of the American population, a steadily increasing number of Jews are choosing cremation. For Reform Jews, the tacit acceptance of cremation by the movement has made the shift easier for those who choose the method. “I personally think there is something to be said for going to visit a grave with a stone,” said Reform Rabbi Benjamin David of Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J. “But part of my work is helping people find a path that is more appropriate for them, and this one may be less painful somehow.

“For me, it’s about not coming to this conversation with being judgmental. It’s about explaining Jewish teachings and respecting the decisions that mourners make,” said David, who will officiate at funeral services with cremation.

 Funeral professionals cite practical and financial reasons as other motivating factors for people making the choice. Brett Schwartz, of Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks, estimates that 14 percent of the deaths currently handled there are cremations. While that number may seem high to those who are used to thinking of it as verboten, it is indicative of the larger trend: according to the Cremation Association of North America, 38 percent of deaths in North America in 2009 — the last year figures were available — were cremations, up from 15 percent in 1985.

At Goldsteins’, Randi Goldstein Casey attributes increasing requests for cremation in large part to rising costs, not just for funerals and burials but also for shivah and other rituals attached to death and mourning.

While an average funeral in Philadelphia can cost from $8,000 to $10,000 before factoring in clergy and cemetery, a direct cremation with no service runs about $3,000 at Goldsteins’.

“It’s also because we’re a more transient society now. Not everyone’s here, they’re out of state,” Casey said. “The feeling is, why put a stone up when no one can visit? And some people say, ‘I don’t want to be stuck in the ground.’ ”

At Joseph Levine & Sons, Brian Levine said cremation is definitely trending and accounts for about 10 percent of the deaths handled by the funeral home.

“I don’t know how far it will go, but about 15 years ago when I started in the business, it was about 4 percent,” Levine said. Like Casey at Goldsteins’, he attributes much of it to family mobility.

“People don’t have roots in the Philadelphia area like they used to.  If you have three children, they may live in different states. There is no place to call home, even for a final resting place,” he said. The other reason, he said, is that more rabbis are agreeing to officiate at cremation services.

Like Freedman, Jewish tradition frowns heavily on cremation. Orthodox and many Conservative Jews would never even consider it. “The clear position of Judaism since the time of the Bible has been that life is a divine gift, and life is composed of the symmetry of body and soul,” explained Rabbi Ephraim Epstein of Congregation Sons of Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Cherry Hill. “We have an obligation to take care of this divine gift while we are alive and after the body and soul separate. It’s biblically mandated to give Kavod Hameis, honor to the dead.”

Epstein also noted that physical resurrection is a basic tenet of Jewish belief, and that when the Messiah comes, Jews will be resurrected to their bodies — if those bodies exist. He added that the visceral disgust felt by people like Freedman about cremation is because of how Jews were exterminated by incineration during the Holocaust is real and far-reaching among members of the faith.

“We live in a world today where there is a lot more egocentric existence. The world points us in the direction of what’s right for me,” Epstein said. “But taking care of the dead, preparing a body for burial is considered the ultimate kindness because you can’t expect anything in return. It’s the opposite of what is convenient for me.”

Convenience was a factor in Schipper’s decision. She wanted her ashes returned to Toronto, the family’s native city where her late husband, Hartley, was buried in a Conservative cemetery.

In discussions with her mother, Freedman said, “Mom reminded me of how Dad was put in a metal casket to be shipped to Toronto. It cost $10,000 back then to have him buried there. She told us, ‘Do you think I care what happens to my body? The body is just a shield.’ So with my sister and my mother, it was decided that if Mom was cremated we could sprinkle her ashes over Daddy” or, if possible, she added, “we’d put them in the grave next to Daddy.”

 In August, Freedman’s daughter and her sister took her mother’s remains to Toronto. “They dug a little hole in Dad’s grave and buried Mom’s ashes there, not too far down, so it would not disturb the grave,” Freedman said. “My daughter wrote a little service, and it was done.”

 “Mom was trying to make it easier on us, but she knew it bothered me,” said Freedman, who now says it is not out of the realm of possibility that she would make the same choice for herself. “We had many conversations, and I came to realize that Mom was right — the soul is what matters, if there even is a soul.”

She doesn’t know what she will ultimately decide to do, she said, but added that she and her daughter must have that conversation.

 “I’m going to get a new will, and I’ll decide then. Can we even do this? We can under Reform Judaism,” she said. “It’s important that I figure it out so my daughter doesn’t have to make decisions alone when I’m old and sick. But the whole thing has just left us with a feeling of sadness.”

1 COMMENT

  1. I’ve always been curious about cremation services, but I’ve never really been around them personally. I’m glad that you talked about how the percentages of people choosing cremation has increased about 15 percent in the last 30 or so years. From what I understand, cremation services are a good option and allow for people to have a different way to celebrate the life of, and remember their loved ones.

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