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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In contrast to Jewish funeral professionals elsewhere, those in Toronto and Massachusetts said that they had not seen much of a change in their local rates in recent years.

Part of that apparent upward trend may be simply due to the cultural influence exerted by the increase in cremations in general society. Botbol likened the shift to the advent of flowers at Jewish funeral services, which was not historically part of the Jewish tradition.

In Philadelphia, Schwartz linked what he said was the city’s relatively high Jewish cremation rate to the fact that Jewish cemeteries in the area are often not owned by synagogues, as in other areas, or even controlled by Jews.

“They don’t require Jews to be as traditional as they do in other parts of the country,” Schwartz said of Philadelphia’s cemeteries.

Rabbi Adam Zeff, spiritual leader of Germantown Jewish Centre, a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, agreed. “As rabbis trying to encourage people to follow Jewish tradition, certainly the cemeteries are not our partners in that,” Zeff said. “They’re in the business of serving their clients, so if the client wants to do something, they will do it.”

Some not-for-profits have policies they hope will discourage cremations. Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, which helps Jews afford Jewish burials, said that people hoping to save money often present her with requests for cremations.

“To try to avoid cremation, we will make deals,” Koplow said. “We’ll adjust our price. If it comes down to money, in order to save somebody from being cremated, we’ll have to subsidize it more.”

Even in Philadelphia, resistance to cremation in some quarters remains high. David Gordon, general manager of Roosevelt Memorial Park, a cemetery near Philadelphia, drew outrage in 2010 when he ran an ad in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent advertising cremation options at the cemetery he manages.

CANA cites cost as a top driver in cremation’s growing popularity in society generally. According to Barbara Kemmis, executive director of CANA, the average cost of a cremation is $1,650, while the average cost of a burial is $7,300.

Funeral directors note, however, that the cost differential is not always so large. Conservative Jews who choose cremation sometimes bury the ashes in cemeteries and hold funeral services, meaning that the extra costs involved in burials are only a matter of a few hundred dollars.

Still, people who choose cremation often forgo other burial rituals.

“Overall, and this is a number that just knocks me out, 70% of the [ashes] are not picked up” from funeral homes, Fishman said. “You go to any funeral home and say, ‘How many [ashes] you got in your basement?’ and the guy will say 300, 500.”

It’s this abandonment of ritual that has even some non-Orthodox rabbis worried.

“Jews have always had the tradition, going back to biblical times, to create a space on earth to mourn the dead,” said Rabbi Andy Bachman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. “The simplest way to put it is, if you go all the way back to Abraham’s first act after Sarah died, it was to secure a plot of land in order to bury her.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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