Author asks Bay Area Jews: Since when is cremation OK

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Doron Kornbluth wants burying the dead to be cool again.

Yes, he acknowledges the worms and decomposition. But those who are squeamish about rotting 6 feet under should know cremation is no walk in the park. Kornbluth describes a gruesome process lasting an hour or more.

“During that hour the body is not still and calm — oh no! The body is [in motion], the body is frying, the brain is sizzling,” Kornbluth, author of “Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View,” told a Feb. 14 audience at the JCC of San Francisco.

Kornluth gave three Bay Area talks on Valentine’s Day — the others were in Palo Alto and San Jose — and all of them focused on the final act of respect for a loved one. The talks were sponsored by the Chevra Kadisha of the South Bay, a society of volunteers who prepare Jews for burial.

“Chevra Kadisha is constantly confronted with this kind of issue,” explained Rabbi Menachem Levine, who is spiritual leader of Am Echad, an Orthodox synagogue in San Jose that is the home of the burial society. “The lack of knowledge around it is just crazy.”

Kornbluth, 46, a native of Montreal, lives in Israel, where he is a licensed tour guide. The author of books on a variety of Jewish topics, he now lectures worldwide. While the goal of his Bay Area talks was to encourage Jews to follow the halachic commandment to bury the dead, he did not dwell on the religious imperative.

Instead the talk addressed and attempted to debunk common reasons for choosing cremation rather than burial: families scattered far afield, environmental concerns and the ick factor regarding burials.

Kornbluth claimed roughly 40 percent of American Jews choose cremation today, a figure derived from extrapolating from the 25 percent of Jews whose cremations are arranged by Jewish funeral homes in the New York City area.

He said that in addition to following national trends — around 50 percent of all Americans choose cremation — the increasing geographical spread among families has led Jews away from choosing burial.

Doron Kornbluth — author of “Cremation or Burial?” — at the JCC of San Francisco photo/arno rosenfeld

“I live in Florida, one kid lives in New York, one lives in the Bay Area, one lives in Chicago,” Kornbluth said, imagining the thought process of a Jewish retiree. “Nobody is going to visit my grave so why bother having one?”

But to drive home the importance of Jews choosing burial regardless, he told an anecdote about a terminally ill Jew during the Holocaust who was able to disguise himself and became a Nazi officer in Lithuania. Worried about being buried with Nazi honors, the officer went to a rabbi in the Kovno ghetto to ask whether it was permissible to be cremated in order to avoid such a fate. The answer was no.

“Even if you’re going to be in a Christian cemetery surrounded by Nazis, Judaism requires us to bury the dead,” Kornbluth said.

Even though family members may be scattered across the country, or even worldwide, and individuals fear that nobody will visit their graves, Kornbluth emphasized that burial is distinct from visitation. Jewish law commands only the former, he said.

After all, he noted, nobody visits the grave of Moses but that does not lessen the importance of his burial.

Noting that cremation has become “cool or hip,” he suggested that the increasing rate of cremation in the United States owed itself in part to “major immigration from the Eastern world.”

Kornbluth also added that while there are legitimate environmental concerns about burials involving embalming fluid and metal coffins which can both release toxins into the ground, Jewish burials — which do not involve embalming and require simple wood coffins — can be more environmentally friendly than cremation.

“Many people choose cremation because they think it’s environmentally friendly — it’s not,” he said.

In response to a question from the audience, Kornbluth suggested it was appropriate for family members to bury a loved one even if that person’s will had stated a desire for cremation.

“Sometimes we here can figure out what is best for them, what they really want, even if it is against their stated wishes,” Kornbluth said, hinting that once the living go “upstairs” they will realize that burial is the better option.

But the goal of his talk was largely to help survivors avoid making tough decisions about the wishes of the deceased.

Levine described regret among Jews who find out after their loved ones are cremated that the practice goes against Jewish religion and tradition.

“I have heard many times regret about cremation,” he said, “but I’ve never heard regret about burial.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.