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National Jewish burial society tries to stem increased cremation

Participants at the North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference discuss the pros and cons of cremation in Berkeley, Calif., on June 8, 2009. (Sue Fishkoff)

Participants at the North American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference discuss the pros and cons of cremation in Berkeley, Calif., on June 8, 2009. (Sue Fishkoff)

BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) — 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 seventh national conference June 7-9.

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 position, 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.

Organizers and speakers pointed to the psychological wisdom of Jewish burial 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 never to engage in such a practice voluntarily.

Kavod v’Nichum’s executive director, David Zinner, hoped to leave the three-day gathering with a group initiative encouraging traditional burial, but that did not prove as easy as he had hoped.

“It seems like a simple issue, but we can’t push people before they are ready,” Zinner acknowledged.

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

While the Orthodox movement forbids cremation as a desecration, the Reform permits it and Conservatives take a middle ground, strongly advising against the practice but not forbidding rabbis from participating in funerals before the body is actually burned.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Emanu-El said more than 50 percent of the funerals in his congregation involve cremation — a number other participants found extremely high, although they all acknowledged that cremation was on the rise in their communities.

Dan Brodsky of the New Mount Sinai Cemetery in St. Louis said 19 percent of the burials in his cemetery involve cremains, whereas three years ago the number was in the single digits.

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 — many Westerners feel in-ground burial is a wasteful use of limited resources.

In fact, according to Kelman, who is spearheading a project to create the country’s first “green” Jewish cemetery just north of San Francisco, cremation releases a great deal of carcinogenic material into the atmosphere and uses more energy than in-ground burial.

The high cost of traditional burial was cited as the main reason behind the Jews’ growing interest in cremation. 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 those costs, including encouraging simple wooden caskets, before the organization could in good conscience promote in-ground burial.

Many Jewish cemeteries find themselves in a bind, as they may 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 that 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.”

Ralph Zuckerman, executive director of Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham, Mich., recalled the day he had to tell an elderly man that his wife of 40 years could not be buried with him because she had never converted to Judaism. Tears rolled down the man’s face.

“The unaffiliated are the majority, and most of them don’t know anything about the Jewish traditions around death,” Zuckerman said, adding that his cemetery, which is owned by a Conservative synagogue but serves Reform, Orthodox and the unaffiliated, will open special sections for cremains and intermarried families this summer.

“I can’t put my head in the sand and say it’s halachically incorrect,” Zuckerman said. “It’s going to happen, and we need to serve the entire community.”

But it shouldn’t be up to cemetery directors to make these decisions, he concluded.

Zinner agreed, saying it was up to local burial societies to educate their Jewish communities about Jewish views on death, mourning and burial.

Rabbi Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim in Danville, Calif., noted that those views are now in flux.

“At a time of such environmental concern, when kashrut is being reframed in terms of ethical kashrut, what is an ethical burial?” he asked.

Rabbi Margaret Holub of the unaffiliated Mendocino Coast Jewish Community in Albion, Calif., was one of the few in the room who accepted cremation as a legitimate option — or at least was willing to admit to holding that position.

“I see it as a reasonable, thoughtful option,” she said. “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.”

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