Cremation is taking over America. While only a few years ago, the percentage of bodies that were cremated was very low, it is quickly approaching the 50% mark in most of the country. Jews are, surprisingly, not far behind – over a third across the nation.
New Yorkers and more traditional Jews are sometimes surprised the rates are so high, but in the West, Pacific Northwest, and Florida, for example, choosing cremation hardly raises an eyebrow.
This is surprising to me, at least – growing up, cremation was simply not something Jews do. Jews don’t eat ham. Jews don’t drink. And Jews don’t cremate. The first is still largely true. The second less so. The third is long gone. Why?
Few people used to cremate. The Christian world was against it for religious reasons (the resurrection being one of the main ones). It was deemed ghastly and primitive.
Things have changed. Why are people more open to cremation? Many reasons exist. People are more mobile today and less able to visit cemeteries. The world is less traditional today, and feels less bound by old customs. Christianity itself is more open to it. There is more openness to Eastern ideas and customs. Cremation seems environmentally friendly. Perhaps most importantly, cremation is usually (but not always) significantly cheaper. Add these up and no wonder cremation is on the rise.
So why not cremate, and what does this have to do with Jewish identity of our kids and grandkids?
There are many reasons to bury rather than burn. Email me at email@example.com if this is a ‘burning’ issue (pun intended!) for you right now and you want sources and deeper explanations. For now, let us do the headlines:
(1) Jewish tradition is clearly and strongly against cremation. Actively destroying a body – rather than passively letting it return to nature – is considered a desecration of the inherent sanctity of every human being. Jews have sacrificed greatly to give their relatives proper Jewish burials.
(2) Despite what the billion-dollar cremation industry will have you believe, environmentalists do not push cremation. It is more eco-friendly than a typical American funeral with its embalming and metal or fancy-wood casket, it is true. But the environmental solution is to choose a green burial with no embalming and using a simple wood casket. Sounds remarkably like Jewish burial practice, doesn’t it? Books on the subject openly admire Jewish practices in this area. Note also that the idea that there is not enough land for burial is a fallacy that has sadly taken on the status of an urban legend. If all dead in the US were buried, it would take 10,000 years to use 1/10,000th of 1% of the land mass for graves ;
(3) The mobility argument is short-sighted. How many generations are likely to carry around grandma in an urn? Within a few years, or the next generation, urns are quietly thrown out. So much for respect for the dead. Whether you can visit or not, give the person a permanent place of rest.
(4) The sprinkling of ashes, aside from its negative environmental aspects, misses the life-affirming aspect of burial, which declares to the world and history, “____ was here. He lived. His life mattered.” The cremated and sprinkled are too easily forgotten.
(5) Cremations are generally cheaper but keep in mind that people often compare apples and oranges – an expensive funeral with the cheapest cremation. In the end the difference is not so large since most people do not choose the cheapest cremation but opt for a service and memorialization which bridges the financial gap. And the extra bucks are worth it.
There is much more to say on the subject but let us get back to the theme of the newsletter. By choosing to be buried, and arranging to do so, in a Jewish cemetery and with all the traditional mourning practices observed, parents and grandparents are sending a strong message to their children. Not only did I live as a Jew. But I want to die as a Jew, in a Jewish cemetery. My Jewishness was not a sidebar to my life. It accompanied me from my birth (through a Bris Milah or Simchat Bat) until my death. Furthermore, the connection to the Jewish past that exists in a Jewish cemetery is palpable: we are part of a history. Not just individuals. But also part of a people.
Talk to your children and grandchildren about your Jewish burial wishes. Share the message that being Jewish is a central part of your life, and that Jewish tradition is an important factor in how you want to be remembered.
Doron Kornbluth’s numerous articles on topics of Jewish interest can be found on doronkornbluth.com. He is the author of the book “Raising Kids to LOVE Being Jewish.”