Burial society stuggles with increased demand for cremation

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With cremation on the rise and more Jewish cemeteries accepting ashes for burial, a national organization of Jewish burial societies is trying to promote traditional in-ground burial among liberal Jews.

“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 consortium of burial societies, Jewish funeral homes and cemeteries, and founding rabbi of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, which hosted the group’s national conference June 7 to 9.

Conference organizers brought in rabbinic speakers to present traditional Jewish sources that teach the human body should be returned after death to the dust from which it was created.

According to the Orthodox , that means burying the body in its entirety, in anticipation of the revivification of the dead that will take place in the final Messianic Age. The Reform movement permits cremation while Conservatives take a middle ground, strongly advising against the practice but not forbidding rabbis from participating in funerals before the body is burned.

Fernwood Cemetery, which provides eco-friendly burials in Mill Valley, displayed a biodegradable wicker casket at the Jewish Cemetery Conference in Berkeley. photo/stacey palevsky

Most of the 100 conference participants represented non-Orthodox congregations that are struggling with members’ rising demand for cremation.

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

Nationally, Rabbi Richard Address, director of Jewish family concerns for the Union for Reform Judaism, said he has noticed “a slight” increase in cremation among the Reform communities he visits.

Pearce suggested the practice is more prevalent on the West Coast, largely due to ecological concerns.

However, Kelman, who is spearheading the creation of the country’s first “green” Jewish cemetery in Mill Valley, said cremation has ecological consequences as well — releasing a great deal of carcinogenic material into the air and using more energy than in-ground burial.

Another reason for the growing popularity of cremation is the high cost of traditional burial. A straw poll of the room yielded an average cost of $5,000 to $12,000 for a traditional Jewish funeral, including the cost of buying the plot, versus $1,000 or so for cremation.

Although the conference was unable to come up with a unified position statement opposing cremation, there was consensus that the greater Jewish community should do more to bring down burial costs, including encouraging simple wooden caskets, before the organization could promote in-ground burial.

Many Jewish cemeteries find themselves in a bind, as they might be owned by one congregation but are called upon to serve a wider Jewish community with varying religious standards.

Gary Webne, co-director of the Conservative-owned Richmond Beth-El Cemetery Corp. in Richmond, Va., said many Jews in his community have asked why the cemetery will not bury cremains.

“There are people interested in saving land and resources, a rethinking that’s beginning to emerge,” he said. “Rules are not necessarily set in stone, and we need to take modern needs into consideration.”

The organizers and speakers who advocated an in-ground burial pointed to the psychological wisdom of the Jewish ritual, which places limits on the mourning period and forces mourners to face the finality of death by watching their loved ones be lowered into the ground.

“I can’t tell you the number of times people who have had close relatives cremated come to me and say it’s as if they just disappeared,” Kelman said. “There’s no closure for them.”

Many also brought up the burning of Jewish bodies during the Holocaust as a compelling argument against cremation.

Kavod v’Nichum’s executive director, David Zinner, hoped there could be a group initiative encouraging in-ground burial, but, he said, “It seems like a simple issue, but we can’t push people before they are ready.”

Rabbi Margaret Holub of the unaffiliated Mendocino Coast Jewish Community in Albion was one of the few rabbis at the conference who defended cremation.

 “I see it as a reasonable, thoughtful option. It’s very difficult to tell someone to spend $6,000 to $8,000 or more for burial. I can understand why some Jews would do something else that still shows honor for their dead.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].