Jews are increasingly choosing to be cremated, funeral professionals say, despite Jewish law and thousands of years of tradition.
The numbers are still small, relative to the non-Jewish community. But they bring with them considerable angst. According to Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a prominent Conservative rabbi in New York City, family members increasingly struggle with the wrenching question of whether to go against the wishes of dead Jews who have asked to be cremated.
“I personally think that as a matter of Jewish law and tradition, that while it is good to honor the request of your dying loved ones, that it is forbidden to cremate a body, and that people are not obliged to follow those requests,” said Kalmanofsky, who leads Congregation Ansche Chesed in Manhattan.
Some congregants follow Kalmanofsky’s advice and betray their parent’s wishes, burying them instead of cremating them. Others feel they can’t.
“I try not to push this button in a manipulative way, but after the Shoah, I think the thought of burning bodies is just unbearable — unbearable to me, at any rate,” Kalmanofsky said.
It’s a conundrum that promises to grow increasingly common as Jewish cremation rates rise.
“I think it’s become a more accepted, preferred form of disposition,” said Mindy Botbol, president of the Jewish Funeral Directors of America and a funeral director at Arlington Heights, Ill.’s Shalom Memorial Park and Funeral Home.
Cremation remains taboo among most Jews, even in the non-Orthodox denominations. No hard numbers on the practice exist. And conversations with Jewish funeral professionals from across the country suggest that the proportion of Jews who choose cremation varies widely by city. But almost all reached by the Forward agree the general trend is up.
Both Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbinical authorities frown on cremation. Jewish law bans the practice. Still, both the Conservative and Reform movements within Judaism let their rabbis officiate at the funerals of people who will be cremated. Orthodox groups don’t allow any such leeway.
Among non-Jews, the popularity of the practice has skyrocketed in recent decades. In 2009, 38% of deaths in North America were cremated — up from just 15% in 1985, according to a report published by the Cremation Association of North America, a trade group.