COVER STORY:Ashes to ashes

Phyllis Taub Greenleaf thought her older sister would never die.

But, of course, everyone does. Some far too young.

In December of 2002, Louise Taub, a teacher for 17 years at Berkeley Congregation Beth El’s preschool and a devoted peace activist, lost her battle with breast cancer. She was 62.

Her body was lovingly washed and wrapped in shrouds in a traditional Jewish ritual. Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue said final prayers over her mortal remains.

And then Taub was cremated. Eight friends and family members each took some of her ashes and scattered them in places they felt Taub would have liked: the beach, in a garden, among the trees, in the waters of Cape Cod where the Taub sisters swam as children.

“Watching a tree grow with my daughter’s ashes, that’s very meaningful,” said Taub’s elderly mother, Berte.

Scattering one’s ashes beneath trees is a family tradition, she explained. “We’ve been doing that in our family for a long time. My brother-in-law and his wife’s ashes are in a tree in Los Angeles. That’s more meaningful for us.”

While no one could doubt the deep and simple beauty of Taub’s family and closest friends carrying out her last wishes, the notion of cremation is an anathema to large swaths of the Jewish community. After all, God was pretty clear in telling Adam, “thou shalt return to the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou [art], and to dust shalt thou return.” (Gen. 3:19)

For Jews to knowingly disregard the biblical prohibition against cremation is “a rejection of everything that’s Jewish,” according to Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of San Francisco’s Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim.

“It’s like a last slap in the face of Judaism on the way out the door.”

Yet Zarchi’s opinion is by no means universal. Plenty of Bay Area Jews are opting for cremation, and most have no notion of insulting anyone or anything.

Estimates of what percentage of Jews choose to be cremated are by no means scientific, but a wealth of anecdotal evidence points to a fairly significant tally.

Several area Jewish cemetery or funeral home directors told j. that cremations are requested anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the time. Liberal rabbis reported a similar figure when asked what percentage of funerals they oversee involves cremated remains.

Nationally, 26 percent of deaths in America resulted in cremation in 2000. By 2025, some estimates project that figure at 50 percent.

Barring ignorance, why would Jews disregard thousands of years of tradition in opting for cremation? Well, for many, it’s a bottom-line financial issue.

“Cremation costs thousands of dollars less,” said Bernard “Van” Vandeberg of Oakland Temple Sinai’s Home of Eternity. “I know one mortuary that charges $800 for cremation services and, for a funeral, probably $4,000 to $5,000.”

Gene Kaufman, longtime director of San Francisco’s Sinai Memorial Chapel, said a burial plot averages about $5,000.

Scattering a loved one’s ashes in a personally meaningful way is by far the more expedient financial move — whether deliberate or not. For liberal or non-religious Jews with no qualms about cremation, the cheaper and more informal choice is often a no-brainer.

“Burial in this country is so exorbitantly expensive, I understand why people choose cremation as an alternative,” said Norm Frankel, director of Peninsula Temple Beth El’s Gan Hazikaron cemetery in San Mateo.

For liberal Jews, prohibitions against cremation mean no more than, say, prohibitions against eating shellfish.

“The Reform movement itself does not follow every biblical prohibition. You could talk about the gay and lesbian issue, you could talk about kashrut,” said Rabbi Stephen Chester of Oakland’s Reform Temple Sinai. “Reform gives freedom of choice, and does in this area too.” Chester estimated 15 to 20 percent of the funerals he officiates involve cremation.

Conservative rabbis are not permitted to officiate at a cremation yet may handle a memorial ceremony for a cremated person if they so choose.

For many, the serenity of a lush, green cemetery is soothing. Yet for others, the cemetery’s rigidity and order is an affront to nature and a waste of land. “Some people do [cremation] because it’s simpler. And it takes up less space,” said Chester.

Within a period of several years, Oakland resident David Hershcopf arranged the cremation of his mother, his Aunt Jenny and his close friend, Louise Taub. Both he and his wife and their families hope to be cremated as well, and have taken the step of expressing this desire, in writing, in their trusts and wills.

“I think the reason why my mother and Jenny and Louise all wanted [cremation] is they felt there was something unnatural about being in a plot next to all the other bodies. They wanted to be part of the earth, and they wanted to be scattered in different places,” said Hershcopf, a congregant at Kehilla for nearly 20 years.

“I think also, in Louise’s case, she was pretty strongly environmental. And she felt this was better for the environment as well.”

Greenleaf concurred: “All that formaldehyde, Louise didn’t want to put that into the earth.”

Rabbi Ted Alexander of Conservative Congregation B’nai Emunah can understand Hershcopf’s environmental argument. But, following an epiphany in the last decade, the San Francisco rabbi no longer conducts funerals or memorial services involving cremated remains.

“Neil Gilman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, made a statement that any Jews who had themselves cremated after Auschwitz were committing an obscenity against Jewish history and experience. And, to me, this has been a very important statement,” said Alexander, a German-born Shanghai refugee.

“Hitler burned 6 million people to death. People who didn’t get a grave. To use the same method …” his voice trailed off.

“I have not conducted any memorials since.”

Alexander is hardly alone in feeling cremation is an affront to the memory of the 6 million who perished.

“The whole idea of it is so alien, so off-putting. This was part of the Final Solution to the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Jacob Traub of San Francisco’s Orthodox Adath Israel.

Yet even Holocaust survivors aren’t unanimous in condemning cremation.

Rabbi Mark Bloom of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland headed an Australian congregation in his younger days. It was an older group of congregants, so he often performed several funerals a month, frequently officiating at memorial services involving a cremated loved one.

“Australia has a tremendous survivor population, and a huge number of them opted for cremation. They said ‘If it was good enough for my brother, sister, father, mother and cousins, it’s good enough for me,'” he recalled.

“I can’t say [if it’s right]. Everyone has to come to their own peace.”

Not all rabbis are so equivocal. Jews who opt for cremation are not only offending others — according to some Orthodox rabbis, they are risking the sanctity of their own souls.

You don’t own your body, explained Rabbi Avi Mansura of the Orthodox Bar Yohai Sephardic Congregation in Sunnyvale. You rent it from God.

“Cremation is destruction. It is showing disregard for the body. The body is not more important than the soul, but a vessel for the soul. It has honor, it has importance,” he said.

“With cremation, you are saying, ‘I totally dishonor my body. It’s nothing. It goes up in flames.'”

Zarchi goes even further: Those who are cremated, he said, might not be resurrected when the Messiah returns. (He tempers this, however, by noting such a fate was more applicable in the deep past, when everyone was steeped in Jewish law and opting for cremation would have been a way to “spite” God.)

The Messianic notion, not surprisingly, does not fly with everyone, including some Orthodox rabbis.

“If God has the capacity to resurrect the dead, then he also has the capacity of resurrecting ashes into a human being if he wanted to,” said Traub.

Adds the Conservative Alexander, “First of all, I don’t believe the Messiah comes. That’s No. 1. I think we have to bring the Messianic age by our actions. I disagree with that completely.”

For Greenleaf, approving her sister’s wish to be cremated wasn’t difficult. And walking out the door every morning to tend her garden — fertilized by her sister’s ashes — is far more significant to her than a trip to the cemetery.

“My sister taught Hebrew to thousands of young people,” said the Sonora resident. “She was a great Jew. If this had violated her ethics as a Jew, she wouldn’t have done it.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.