Jews are, as the epithet goes, a wandering people, and today we are among the most mobile Americans. Modern technology may have made it much easier to stay in touch across great distances, but our far-flung experience still poses challenges — challenges that have, quite literally, grave consequences.
Take, for example, Michael, a 50-something professor from Manhattan. He was visiting his mother in Florida when she died, and he remained there for the funeral and the initial days of mourning, but returned to New York City to complete the shiva period of mourning. For him the bereavement was serial: At the beginning people who knew his mother came and told him stories about her, so he felt comforted.
Then at home among his own friends, he found himself in a different role: representing his mother’s life to people who didn’t know her. In this there was a different kind of consolation, but one that delivered a second blow. His mother’s death meant not only coming to terms with her stark absence, but it involved the dawning awareness that the world of his upbringing no longer lived anywhere but in his own recollections.
Growing up in one place but making a new life in another, it’s not uncommon to realize that no one really knows whence you’ve come — your family history or your own life story from childhood into adulthood.
Perhaps this feeling explains why in our time more people than ever seem to feel compelled to write their memoirs. When no one really knows your name, you need to flesh out a whole world of associations to convey a sense of who you are.
Of course, in that perhaps idealized time when people supposedly stayed put in their ancestral homes, the danger was suffocation amid all of the thick relations. For some, those familial ties might have been reason enough to leave home. But out on your own in the 21st century, you discover that you alone carry your history with you. The perils of post-modernism, indeed.
The geographic dispersal of extended families is an increasingly familiar American story: Your aunt and uncle who retired to Florida have bought cemetery plots there. But their own parents are buried up north, their kids live in California, and they’re wondering who’s going to visit them there after they die.
It reminds me of a joke from a bygone era about a New York matron who declares that she wants to be buried at Bloomingdales, because that way she can rest assured that her children will visit her often. Given that the retail store now has 33 locations across the nation, the proverbial Jewish mother today might ask to be cremated rather than buried, so that her ashes can be strewn in as many outlets as possible.
In fact, the cremation rate among the general American population has increased steadily over the past several decades, rising to 28% in 2002 from 3-4% percent in the 1960s, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In 1997 Jews represented 3% of the cremations nationally, according to the association’s figures. Rabbis report that they are under tremendous pressure to permit cremations, despite the fact that this practice is outside of the bounds of rabbinic tradition.
In Israel, too, the idea of cremation has become more ponderable. Witness the opening in the coastal city of Hadera last year of an institution — dare I call it a crematorium? — named Alei Shalechet, Hebrew for “autumn leaves.”
Is this an instance of a practice once viewed as an anathema now losing its power to horrify? After the Holocaust, the traditional abhorrence of cremation took on an additional dimension of horror because of its association with the Nazi death camps. Given this strong post-Holocaust taboo, why is cremation now becoming a viable alternative?
In Israel, one factor is the growing population density and the resulting grab for scarce land. With an annual mortality rate of 35,000 persons, in order to accommodate need cemeteries would have to grow by 35 acres every year — an area equivalent to four square blocks in Tel Aviv.
This population pressure has led Israel to adopt a preference for burial in tiers, a policy known as “saturated burial sites.” In the most populous parts of the country, the costs of burial have also risen. So the most ecologically-minded people, as well as those who are least halachically inclined, might choose cremation.
In the United States, the pressures of mobility play a role, because cremation can mean that those left behind aren’t tied to a specific burial place. Loved ones who pass away can be taken wherever their next of kin go. Cremation allows you to split the differences, so to speak.
An acquaintance named David told me that his mother was cremated, as per her instructions. He scattered some of her ashes at her favorite place in her favorite city, and he buried her remaining ashes in his lovely garden. His father’s ashes also lie in his yard, but on the opposite end, because the parents were divorced.
In light of changes and adaptations regarding death and dying, it might seem surprising that compared to other traditional Jewish practices, mourning customs have a particularly long shelf life among American Jews. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, nearly three-quarters of the American Jewish population reports that upon the death of a close relative they observed Jewish mourning or memorial rituals, such as sitting shiva, saying Kaddish or going to synagogue. Only attending Seder is reported more frequently.
But while some mourning customs are enduring, how we bury and mark loss is subject to change and adaptation.
For the first 11 months after my mother died, whenever my sisters and I visited her grave we spent the time puttering around and tidying up. On the day of the unveiling of the tombstone, almost a year after my mother was buried, we discovered why, despite all our efforts, there had been so many rocks strewn around the grave. Unbeknownst to us, my father, who had been going to the cemetery on his own, had left a stone after every visit.
My father had been following the traditional custom of placing a stone on the grave, to show he’d been there. We, in our ignorance, had felt it our job to keep the place neat and clean. It all had a rather Sisyphean quality, but it turned out to be reassuring to learn how attentive we had all been, each in our own way.
Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.