Boca Raton, Fla. — Sandy Yacker of Boca Raton, whose friend’s husband had been sick for 10 years, hung up the phone after learning that he had died the previous night.
“She’s having him cremated,” Yacker said matter-of-factly of the widow’s decision, in a conversation with a reporter moments later. “The family is in Chicago and they have just a few relatives here.”
“My mother was cremated; that was her wish,” she continued. “She was in a nursing home in North Miami Beach and made all the arrangements herself. … Howie [her husband] says he too wants to be cremated. … I grew up Conservative and being taught cremation was against the Jewish religion. I was a little shocked when my mother did
From birth to marriage to death, taboos that once helped define — and unify and preserve — the Jewish community are falling away. The taboo against cremation may be next. Not circumcising a male Jewish child was, not very long ago, almost unheard of. Not today. Marrying out of the faith, or marrying a member of the same sex were once severely frowned upon. Not anymore.
And now with the recession, and with families spread out all over the country, more and more Jews are opting for cremation, which costs only a fraction of an in-ground burial.
Steven Fischman, the owner of Sinai Memorial Chapels in nearby Delray Beach, said that in the last five months 35 percent of his business has involved Jewish cremations — up from nearly 30 percent previously.
“Money is part of it, but the other part is that people lose their traditional roots when they move to Florida and never regain them here,” he said. “They leave their synagogue and neighborhood funeral director and everything here is simplified. As they get older they don’t have as many friends left and they don’t want their kids to have to worry about visiting their grave. And why spend $10,000 when the cost of a cremation with a memorial service is $2,500 — $1,295 without the service.”
Yacker said her mother, an only child, told her that she wanted to be cremated because “she didn’t want me to have any tsuris with maintaining a stone and gravesite. My grandfather is buried in Fort Lee and we never get to New Jersey to visit or to say a prayer [at his grave]. I can’t see how they are maintaining the grave, and I have guilt about that.”
Her mother’s ashes were put in an urn and placed in a niche at a local cemetery. Yacker then invited friends and relatives to her home, where a rabbi her mother had met conducted a service with her mother’s picture in the room.
“I have heard more about cremations in the last eight years than I ever did in my life,” said Yacker, 70. “A lot of that is because of cost. … I might decide myself to do it. I don’t want my children to have that problem [burial costs] either. I just want them to have good memories.”
Some of the hype cremations receive is from ads here that read: “Cremation under rabbinic supervision” and “Jewish cremation?”
Fischman said he placed those ads because non-Jewish funeral homes and crematory societies were attracting many Jews.
“We abide by all the traditions, and we have two Reform rabbis who are almost on staff who will officiate at cremation services,” he said, referring to the services that use a rented casket and are held before cremation, and to services held after cremation. “There are also Conservative rabbis who officiate at cremation services every day,” he said, adding that only Orthodox rabbis refuse.
Rabbi David Steinhardt, senior rabbi of B’nai Torah Congregation here, said that in his 16 years at the Conservative synagogue only one congregant has asked him to officiate at a funeral in which the deceased was cremated. He declined, but later conducted a memorial service.
The rabbi said that only an estimated 8 to 14 percent of the Jewish population in South Florida are affiliated with synagogues and that he believes those opting for cremations are not among them.
A possible exception is Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, a Reform congregation that bills itself as the only synagogue in the country with a mausoleum on its grounds. Its spokeswoman, Sally Ling, said that only 3 percent of those buying space in the mausoleum were not prior members of the 1,300-family congregation.
And JTA earlier this month quoted Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Emanu-El as saying that more than 50 percent of the funerals in his congregation involve cremation. The news agency also reported that a national organization of Jewish burial societies is trying to promote traditional in-ground burial among liberal Jews.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement, said he “would be surprised if there was a growing effort in the [Reform] rabbinate to discourage cremation. At the same time, I have not seen anyone encouraging it.”
He pointed out that although the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, has over the years told its members not to refuse officiating at funerals for people who are cremated, a more recent decision “discourages the choice of cremation in favor of in-ground burial.”
Nevertheless, Rabbi Yoffie stressed, he believes an “overwhelming” number of Reform rabbis would officiate at the funeral of a cremated person.
In addition to cost, Rabbi Yoffie said families cite environmental reasons for cremation.
“The notion of taking up cemetery space tends to be something that is on their minds and may be one reason for the increase” in cremations, he said.
But Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, founding director of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha in Queens, pointed out that the “environmentalist movement is today discouraging cremations because the heat and carbon that is released by cremation” contributes to global warming.
“Environmentalists are encouraging green burial ceremonies and the use of bamboo caskets that don’t use valuable wood, which is perfect for Jewish law,” he added.
Rabbi Zohn said the “generally accepted figure [for Jewish cremations] in New York is over 20 percent.” But he pointed out that the figure is actually higher because “a large number of Jewish people don’t go to Jewish funeral homes” for cremation.
And he said that just as the rest of the nation gravitates towards cremations — the national figure is nearly 40 percent with projections that it will reach 50 percent by 2025 — Jewish cremations are also expected to increase.
Thomas Loughran, general manager of Gutterman’s, a funeral home in Woodbury, L.I., said that five years ago he handled about five cremations a year. Now, he said, the number is about 40.
“It’s driven by the fact that these people choose not to have a service and this is the easiest way they can dispose of a human being,” he said. “Probably 80 percent take the remains home. Some scatter the ashes.”
Loughran said his funeral home charges about $2,500 for a cremation.
Another reason for the increase in cremations is that “the further we get from the Holocaust, the less the word crematorium is a stigma to the Jewish community,” according to Keith Kronish, general manger of Gutterman Warheit Memorial Chapel in Boca Raton.
He suggested also that the increase “may have something to do with the rise in interfaith marriage — more and more Jews are becoming assimilated into a universe that is not Jewish” and where there is growing acceptance of cremation.
Efrem Goldberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi at the Boca Raton Synagogue, said he has noticed that “people’s values become flexible because of the economy. If you asked them objectively if they believed in cremation, they would say no. But if they or their children can’t afford [a burial], they do [cremation].”
Rabbi David Englander of B’nai Torah Congregation here said cremation is of such concern that he spoke about it during the High Holy Days. He said he believes it is “something we are going to face more and more because Jewish practice is influenced by the society in which it finds itself.
“We have to figure out how to best respond to it. We want to be there for families and yet … My practice is to say I’m sorry for your loss but I won’t officiate at a service that is directly connected to a cremation.”
Asked his answer to those who prefer cremations, Rabbi Zohn said: “The key is the belief in the soul and an afterlife. If you do not believe in it, cremation is acceptable. But if you believe in eternity and resurrection, it is more difficult because cremation is the destruction of everything living.”
But Fischman, who said he plans to be cremated himself, questioned that, saying: “Who’s to say that cremation destroys it all? My soul lives on. Resurrection can be without the body.”
Rabbi Zohn observed that cremation is “another way of eroding the family structure because many families visit the graves of parents and grandparents on holidays and yahrzeits. If they are not buried, that is lost. … To see a casket lowered and know it contains the body of a loved one is a closure you don’t have with a niche.”
Temple Beth-El’s Ling said loved ones often visit the temple’s mausoleum the same as they would a gravesite. And she said they can take rocks from a container at the entrance and place them on the ground in front of their loved one’s niche [for urns] and crypt [for coffins], just as they place stones on headstones at graves to mark their visit.
Although the synagogue’s rabbi, Daniel Levin, was in Israel and could not be reached for comment, Ling provided a pamphlet given to congregants interested in the mausoleum and cremation.
“Traditionally,” it said, “Jewish custom frowned on cremation. … Judaism also teaches the idea of ‘from dust we are formed and to dust we will return.’”
Fischman insisted that his outreach to those who would opt for cremation is “all consumer driven.”
“It is not something we’re pushing,” he said. “I’m just catering to those who have been shunned. I respect their wishes. I’m reaching out to them and saying … just because they want cremation does not mean they are not Jewish.”