Confronting Cremation

Violation of Jewish Law or Sensible Modern Ritual?

kurt hoffman

By Regina Sandler-Phillips

Published May 18, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

The dumping of about 300 decomposing corpses at a Georgia crematory was exposed in 2002. A New Hampshire crematory was shut down in 2005 after some 4,000 cremations, for violations that included com-mingled cremation, unlabeled remains and forgery. Trafficking in human body parts at several New York funeral homes left more than 1,000 bodies desecrated as of 2006. In the absence of protective levayah, anyone’s body is vulnerable to such crimes.

Is cremation more ecological than burial? “For most environmentalists, it’s actually better to fade away than burn out,” British journalist Leo Hickman has noted in the Guardian. “Our lives… already result in enough gratuitous combusting of fossil fuels. Much better, in death, to compost down as nature intended.”

The Centre for Natural Burial offers an extensive list of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants linked to crematories, and estimates that “the amount of nonrenewable fossil fuel needed to cremate bodies in North America is equivalent to a car making 84 trips to the moon and back… each year.”

There are also hard questions of environmental justice, since crematories — like other incinerators — are generally located in poorer communities. The Associated Press has reported on neighborhood campaigns to block the construction of new crematories in various states and countries, with particular concern for mercury emissions from dental fillings.

Does cremation save land? Given the prodigious consumption of nonrenewable energy, the air pollution and the global warming hazards involved, it’s difficult to make the case that cremation will safeguard “land for the living” in any truly sustainable manner for future generations.

Is cremation less expensive? Usually — assuming only direct transport from deathbed to crematory. Depending on the details of memorial service arrangements, though, costs may rival those of burial. Most significantly, as indicated previously, the ultimate environmental costs of cremation are much higher than the dollar amount paid by the individual consumer.

Does the choice of cremation reflect indifference to the Holocaust? Not necessarily. There is growing awareness that some Holocaust survivor family members quietly but deliberately choose cremation as an act of solidarity with murdered relatives. Sensitivity to this mostly unspoken way of working through the legacy of trauma should temper our public rhetoric.

This last question brings us to the crux of the issue. We need to speak with our families not only about our funeral requests, but also about what these requests really mean to us. A request for cremation may express kinship solidarity, or a fear that no one will visit or remember a grave. It may reflect a terror of enclosed spaces — which, given hours in an oven at extreme temperatures, the mechanics of cremation would not seem to assuage. It may represent a hope of easing the burden on our surviving family members, who may or may not see the request in the same way. It often involves a search for some means of avoiding the messy human need to grieve our losses.

Silence intended to spare the feelings of those we love often has the opposite effect at the end of life. The loving courage to speak about what really matters can strengthen our relationships. For our families and communities, as well as for the sake of our planet, it’s vital that we take this conversation to another level.

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips is a chaplain, educator, and the director of Ways of Peace, which promotes community justice and kindness via mindful responses to human needs throughout the life cycle.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.