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Across the Former Soviet Union in Russia, Poverty Leading Jews to Cremation Despite Religious Taboo

Alexandra Kerzhenevich, a math teacher in her mid-50s and a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, was never very religious but she has always felt a deep connection to her Jewish roots. So when her father died last year, she wanted to bury him next to her mother in the family plot in the city’s historic Jewish cemetery.

Although the cemetery is rundown, severely crowded and overgrown with weeds, it is still, she said, the place in the city that is closest to her heart. “When I come to the cemetery, I feel at home — this is where all my people are,” she said.

But like family plots in this and many other Russian cemeteries, the Kerzhenevich area is small and already crowded with the graves of other family members.

In order to add her deceased father to the grave, she had to have his body cremated. She then buried the urn containing his ashes.

Kerzhenivich’s dilemma illustrates a nationwide problem.

The practice of adding urns to family plots is common, among both Jews and non-Jews, in the overcrowded cemeteries of the former Soviet Union. But the issue has a special poignancy in the Jewish community: At a time when Jewish identity is on the rise, Russian Jews are becoming aware of the traditional prohibition against cremation but are unable or unwilling to comply.

Years of state-sponsored preference for cremation, combined with financial considerations — it’s three times as expensive to bury a body as to cremate one in St. Petersburg — conspire to make it prohibitively difficult to bury the dead according to halachah, or Jewish law.

For most Russian Jews, therefore, there is no other realistic option. And many aren’t overly concerned about it.

Kerzhenevich knew that to cremate her father’s body was a violation of Jewish law. But “my father was not religious at all,” she said.

Although she and her husband sporadically attend synagogue services, Judaism has always been more of a cultural identity to them. Their priority was to keep the family together — even in death.

Ironically, the widespread desire among Russian Jews to be buried with their families has lead to increased cremation.

For many years, interments in St. Petersburg’s Jewish cemetery were limited to relatives of those already buried there. New additions could be made only to existing family plots, and the burial of full-size caskets was forbidden.

Cremation was the only way.

Rabbi Menahem Mendel Pevzner, the chief rabbi of St. Petersburg, is very concerned about the cremation issue, calling it “one of the main problems that the Jewish community in Russia is facing today.”

He attributes the widespread practice to ignorance, saying “people do not have the information to make a correct decision” about proper Jewish burial.

Explaining that Russian Jews used to cremate their dead “because it was cheaper,” he says that now it’s primarily due to families putting a priority on burying their dead together rather than following Jewish law. That, he says, is wrong: It is extremely important to observe Jewish burial laws, even if it means going against the wishes of the deceased.

Many Russian Jews find that position hard to accept.

“When my wife passed away, she wanted to be buried with her aunts and uncles in the family grave in the Jewish cemetery,” said Raphael Onikul, a 72-year-old meteorologist. “She was never religious. None of us were.”

Although Judaism never played a role in his wife’s life, before she passed away she expressed a desire to be buried alongside her relatives. Onikul honored that wish, and cremation was the only way to fulfill it.

“There was a place for her there, and there is also one for me,” he said.

Pevzner has 70 years of history working against him: Cremation became widely accepted among Russian Jews after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The ruling Communist Party promoted the practice, partly for sanitary concerns but mainly to discourage religious beliefs.

None of Russia’s major faiths, including the Russian Orthodox Church, permit cremation.

St. Petersburg’s Jewish cemetery was privatized in 1991, and new plots of land began to be allocated. For the first time in decades, the Jewish cemetery was opened — but only to families who could prove the deceased was related to someone already buried there.

One only has to walk around the cemetery to see that the situation of the Kerzhenevich and Onikul families mirrors that of many others. There are few new grave sites, and it is not unusual to see five or more family members buried in one 25-square-foot plot of land.

Frequently, small stone plaques attached to the fencing of a family plot mark newer graves — there is no more space on the headstones for inscriptions.

Today the cemetery is owned by the municipality and run by a private firm, The Burial House, which is not associated with the Jewish community. This firm takes care of new plot allocations, cemetery maintenance and funeral services.

Those wishing to purchase a plot can expect to pay $700 for 20 square feet, bringing the minimum price of a complete funeral to about $1,250. Not many people in Russia can afford that.

Those who have no relatives buried in the Jewish cemetery have to turn to one of the many newer cemeteries outside the city not constrained by a lack of space. Although they are not Jewish cemeteries, they do contain Jewish sections.

Yankel Ben Gersh, the director of funeral services at the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg and a member of the chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society, puts the price of a complete Jewish burial at $1,500. The chevra kadisha’s fee for preparing and watching over the body is just $50, he noted — it’s the other fees, including purchasing a burial plot, that drive up the price.

In contrast, cremation and burying an urn in an existing family plot can cost as little as $500.

For the city’s elderly in particular, who subsist on an average monthly pension of $100, traditional Jewish burial becomes an impossible financial burden.

According to Ben Gersh, the chevra kadisha will make up half of the difference between a burial with cremation and a proper Jewish burial. This is an important duty that “the Jewish community takes onto itself,” he said. “The chevra kadisha tries to convince people to do the right thing and have a proper Jewish burial.”

But the incentives do not always succeed. And even when there is a cremation, Ben Gersh says, the chevra kadisha won’t abandon a Jew in need. While the burial society does not condone cremation, it still feels an obligation to help — whether it is before the ashes have been buried or many years after a person’s death.

“We do all we can to help the soul of the deceased. After all, it is not their fault they were cremated,” Ben Gersh said.

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