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Cemetery Ad Stirs Up a Stinging Controversy

November 11, 2010 By:
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The cemetery, which ran this ad in the "Jewish Exponent," said it won't appear again.
Although he sensed potential provocation, the general manager of a local Jewish cemetery said he never imagined that his full-page advertisement touting cremation as an alternative to burial would cause such a backlash.

"Did you know ... Jewish people are being cremated?" blared the banner in the full-page advertisement for Roosevelt Memorial Park in Trevose in the Oct. 28 issue of the Jewish Exponent.

But in a barrage of letters and calls to the cemetery, as well as to the Exponent, several rabbis and Holocaust survivors expressed outrage that Roosevelt would promote something that's considered taboo in Jewish tradition, both because of Jewish law and the association the process has with Nazi death camps.

David Gordon, the cemetery's manager, said that his intention was not to condone the practice, but to encourage Jews who consider cremation to be memorialized in some Jewish context.

"I wasn't advocating for cremation in the least," said Gordon.

The controversy highlighted a practice that, while contrary to Jewish law, has become more common among Jews as it has gained acceptance in mainstream America.

Until the end of the 19th century, the practice of cremation was extremely rare in this country, but that has changed dramatically. By 1999, 25 percent of the deceased in the United States were cremated, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. By 2009, that figure had climbed to 37 percent.

The trend has clearly had an impact on the Jewish community. Locally, somewhere between 10 percent and 13 percent of the Jewish dead are cremated, according to several funeral home and cemetery directors.

Gordon said that people have given a variety of reasons for choosing cremation, from not liking the idea of lying in the ground after death to a sense that it's a wiser use of limited space in the world.

But according to Samuel Brodsky, a supervisor at Joseph Levine & Sons, the decision is often "strictly economic. Cremation is appreciably less expensive."

Cremation can cost as little as $1,000. While costs for traditional burial vary widely, it routinely runs upward of $10,000.

The Torah itself does not explicitly forbid cremation, but in-ground burial was the norm in ancient Israel, and rabbinic rulings have forbidden cremation. Each denomination has a slightly different take on the practice.

Some Orthodox Jews believe that the dead will be revived when the Messianic age dawns, so bodies must be buried intact. Rabbi Yonah Gross, of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood said that a body is considered to contain the name of God, like a Torah scroll.

Orthodox rabbis do not officiate at funeral services where a cremation is involved. However, according to the Orthodox Union, there has been some debate over whether it's permissible for ashes to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

The Conservative movement considers cremation a violation of Jewish law. But according to a 1986 ruling issued by the Rabbinical Assembly, if a family chooses cremation, a Conservative rabbi is permitted to officiate at a chapel memorial service, as long as the body of the deceased is present in the room. That clearly rules out officiating at the burial of ashes.

'Trying to Help' in Ways Rabbis Can
Conservative Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El of Wynnewood said he has officiated at pre-cremation services and likens the movement's approach to its take on intermarriage. Conservative rabbis are prohibited from officiating at an interfaith wedding, but not from counseling the couple before and after matrimony.

"Even though we may not be able to assist you in all of the non-traditional things you are doing, we are trying to help in all the ways that we can," he said.

Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis teach that cremation is contrary to Jewish tradition, and are expected to discourage families from taking that route. But clergy from both denominations are afforded much broader latitude.

For example, Reform rabbis do not require a body, or even the ashes, to be present in order to conduct a memorial service. Some Reform rabbis will conduct a graveside service for the burial of ashes.

Rabbi Robert Leib of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington said that he never asks a family whether or not they plan to have the ashes present at a service. He's been performing ceremonies involving cremation since the 1980s, when he was serving a liberal congregation in Cape Town, South Africa, where he was born.

"I, as a rabbi, have no right to tamper with or amend the last will and testament of an individual," said the Reform rabbi.

But Leib said he understood why many in the community find cremation objectionable and were disturbed by the Roosevelt ad.

Regret for Emotional Reactions
In a response to the ad, Rabbi Lisa Malik of Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron of Havertown, said: "In this post-Holocaust era, within a few weeks of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, how could any Jew, in good conscience, sponsor an ad that encourages the burning of Jewish bodies in ovens?"

Manya Perel, an 86-year-old resident of the Northeast who said she survived eight concentration camps, called Gordon directly, as well as the Exponent, and said that seeing the advertisement has made many in the survivor community "feel we are again under the power of Hitler and the Nazis."

Gordon expressed regret in a meeting with Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation; he also spoke directly to Perel. He said there won't be any more ads about cremation, though Roosevelt is continuing to advertise mausoleums, or above-ground burial, which is also contrary to Jewish tradition.

Merow, the president of the Conservative movement's local Rabbinical Assembly who signed a letter that appeared in the Nov. 4 Exponent, said things have been smoothed over.

"I think we're working together on this," she said.

Gordon, for his part, expressed surprise about how much reaction the ad received.

"What I was trying to say," he explained, "was that if people opt for cremation, they should bury the ashes in the Jewish tradition in a cemetery, and show respect for the deceased, as well as the family of the deceased." 

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