The Great Cremation Debate

Located in a small settlement outside the town of Hadera, Israel’s first and only crematorium opened its doors in 2005. The operation quickly came under intense scrutiny. Residents called for its immediate removal; the landlord who rented the space to the owner was asked by locals to terminate the rental contract; and the Chief Rabbinate released a statement expressing its “disgust and abhorrence.” Families living near the crematorium even complained about the smell, despite the fact that crematoriums emit no odor. The protests continued for two years. Then, in 2007, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper published the crematorium’s address. It burned down the next day.

The controversy over the crematorium stems from the fact that in traditional Jewish practice, cremation is banned. The act contradicts the command to bury the dead as set forth in Deuteronomy 21:23 and is said to negate the possibility of reincarnation. Additionally, the burning of the human body, created in God’s image, is viewed as blasphemy. But over time, a counterpoint has begun to sound against the voices of prohibition. In an article in The Jerusalem Post, the owners of the Hadera crematorium cited a poll indicating that ten percent of Israeli Jews are open to the idea of cremation.

Cremation’s growing acceptance is, of course, not confined to Israel. Sanctioned in certain cases by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1892, cremation is also becoming increasingly popular in the United States. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the cremation rate rose from approximately fifteen percent of all deaths in 1985 to about a third as of 2006. And while solid numbers for Jewish cremation are lacking, anecdotal evidence suggests that the practice is firmly entrenched. A suburban Philadelphia cemetery owner estimates that cremations now total five percent of his business. The same percentage—this time applied to all of California’s Jewish funerals—is given by cremation advocate Rabbi Allen Maller of Culver City, California, whose Temple Akiba synagogue even has a memorial garden set aside for the interment of ashes. Numerous Jewish memorial chapels in and around New York City openly offer cremation in phone conversations. Researching this article, I discovered that cremation was a part of the recent history of my own family. Cremation has inarguably become a part of contemporary Jewish life, perhaps for the better.

“I just don’t feel it’s right that the dead should take up space on the planet that could be used for the living,” explains Linda Winters, sixty-eight, a retired teacher living in California. A few years ago, Linda and her husband Lou, seventy-three, began giving serious thought to their funeral plans.

“Cremation makes sense to me,” explains Lou. “We don’t want to be a burden to anyone—our family or our planet—after we’re gone. Cremation is the right thing for us to do.”

If cremation is widely reinterpreted in the way the Winters have—that is, as a mitzvah, a good deed—then perhaps it is the religion’s normative practices, and not cremation, that are problematic.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center, a Jewish ecological think tank in Philadelphia, has spent more than a quarter of a century contemplating eco-kashruth, the Jewish relationship with ecology. “You would need to be certain,” Waskow reflects, “that cremation is actually more ecologically friendly before saying it’s more ethical than burial.” He notes that historically, Jewish burial meant “simply to rest the body on a plank and lower it into a grave. That,” he says, “rarely happens anymore. But both cremation and burial practices can and will change if our planet demands it. The practices will change back to something more closely resembling those of our ancestors. The process of burial as it should be practiced—recycling the body back into the earth from which it came—carries a profoundly powerful ecological reality.” It is not, Waskow says, ancestral burial that is “out of whack; it is the way we practice it now.” As Waskow suggests, cremation might not be as eco-friendly as supporters believe. Even though it uses less space—no small consideration in land-starved country like Israel—cremation still releases harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Lowering a body into the ground and allowing it to decompose may be best for the planet. However, state laws often mandate the use of coffins.

But ecology is not the only issue. Rabbi Andy Bachman of Brooklyn Jews, an organization dedicated to helping young Jews build meaningful connections with their faith, has presided over multiple funerals involving cremation. “The horse is out of the gate,” says Bachman. “People are choosing to cremate. The subject of cremation always comes up when I speak to people about death. But,” says Bachman—surprisingly, given his liberal milieu—“I tell them not to do it.” Why? “For Jews in the Diaspora, the cemetery is a critical piece of land. To see a family name etched in stone lends a sense of permanence, a sense of place. There is something incredibly powerful about being able to visit the land where your family is buried. The spiritual and ethical component of how we respond to death is critical.”

The fact of burial can be comforting, too. As a New York professional, age thirty-three (who requested anonymity due to the delicate nature of the topic) says, visiting her family mausoleum provides a sense of closeness and continuity. She plans to be entombed in the family sepulchre as well. The graveyard has become “a gathering place for me and my extended family. There’s a bench. There’s shrubbery. It’s peaceful. The mausoleum has the family name on it—it’s a part of our family history.”

But history’s darker side haunts perceptions of cremation. The fact that Jewish bodies were once systematically burned renders cremation disturbing for many. “The Holocaust was one of the main things I had to come to terms with when I was thinking about cremation,” says Linda Winters. “But in the end, I didn’t think it was right to let that past event prevent me from doing something good for the future.”

Though he disagrees with cremation, Rabbi Bachman is also against invoking the Holocaust to condemn the practice. “The Holocaust polemic doesn’t work for me. You could make the same arguments against burial or tattoos. There are plenty of positive reasons for making decisions about death that don’t involve the Holocaust.”

Those reasons are often bound up with one’s beliefs about what happens to the body after death. For a forty-one-year-old New York historian (who also asked that his name not be used), cremation remains the best choice. “Why would I care what happens to my body?” he asks. “I’ll be dead. There are environmental issues at play here. Going straight to the deep fryer or being dumped in the sea is preferable to taking up space in what could be a forest or a skateboard park.”

The historian is not alone in his desire for a humbler, smaller last hurrah. “The motivation behind the cremations I’ve presided over almost always had to do with simplicity, harmony, and equality,” explains Rabbi Maller, who has presided over cremations for more than twenty years and who plans to be cremated himself. “I’m not advertising cremation, and I’m not necessarily encouraging it, but I think it should be offered to those who want it.”

Embedded within Maller’s statement may reside the real motivation behind American Jewry’s growing embrace of cremation. Where there is demand, there will be supply. In that peculiarly capitalistic sense, cremation may deserve to be understood the same way we now understand observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher—that is, as one of those aspects of Judaism that modern American Jews feel free to pick and choose from, honoring them in increasingly unique ways, giving respect to both tradition and individual preference.

“Duality is one of the main characterizations of the Jew in postmodern existence,” says Rabbi Bachman. “One can make the non-Jewish decision to cremate at the same time as making the decision to put out a shmear when sitting shivah. As much as I might disagree with cremation, I disagree even more with denying people the right to experience Judaism in the way that helps them feel closer to their religion.”

That sounds like a wise idea—for this life and the next.

This article is republished with permission from Guilt & Pleasure.

David Marchese is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Salon.com, The Village Voice, Spin, and Wax Poetics, and been anthologized in the Da Capo Best Music Writing series. Though still able to recite a good chunk of his Bar Mitzvah portion, he feels spiritually closer to Marc Bolan than Maimonides.