More Jews Opt for Cremation

Numbers Rise Despite Religious Edicts Requiring Burial

Different Choice: Jews still choose to be buried at higher rates than the general public. But cremation is increasingly popular, despite religious edicts and tradition.
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Different Choice: Jews still choose to be buried at higher rates than the general public. But cremation is increasingly popular, despite religious edicts and tradition.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published June 27, 2012, issue of June 29, 2012.
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Neither CANA nor any other body keeps reliable statistics on the proportion of Jews who choose cremation. Estimates are difficult to compare, as some insiders count the proportion of burials in Jewish cemeteries that are of cremated remains, while others measure the proportion of deaths that result in cremations, wherever the remains end up.

Extrapolating from the available figures, it appears that the proportions of Jews who choose cremation vary widely based on geography.

Cremation rates in and around Philadelphia appear to be particularly high, according to some funeral professionals in the city. Brett Schwartz, a funeral director at Goldstein’s Rosenberg’s Raphael Sacks, a large funeral home with two locations in the Philadelphia area, said that 14% of the deaths they handle are cremations. Joe Levine, of the city’s other major Jewish funeral home, Joseph Levine & Sons, said that roughly 10% or 11% of the funerals he handles are cremations.

“If you were to go back as little as 15 years ago, it was 3%,” Levine said.

Congregational rabbis in the city placed the proportion of cremations at which they had officiated far lower, suggesting that Jews not affiliated with congregations are choosing cremation at a higher rate. And Levine disputed the notion, put forward by Schwartz and one other area funeral professional, that cremations are more common among Jews in Philadelphia than other cities.

Another area where experts cited relatively high rates is New York State, where Richard Fishman, director of the New York Department of State’s Division of Cemeteries, estimated that 8% of burials in Jewish cemeteries are burials of ashes. In Chicago, Botbol said that 6% to 7% of the deaths handled at her funeral home are cremations.

Ten years ago, Fishman said, the proportion of burials in Jewish cemeteries in New York that were of ashes was “infinitesimal.” That’s changed. “It’s not scientific, but it’s definitely moving up,” he said.

In Toronto, which has a large Orthodox population, William Draimin of Toronto Hebrew Memorial Park said that cremation rates were very low — 10 or 20 out of some 1,500 deaths per year. And Stan Kaplan, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, which owns 106 cemeteries throughout the state, said that less than 1% of burials in the cemeteries he overseas are burials of ashes.

One funeral director in Seattle, Ross Kling of the Rosebud Funeral Service, said that 3% to 5% of Jewish deaths in the city were cremations. But he estimated that at one particular Reform synagogue the rate was as high as 15%.


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