Funeral customs are changing

In an on g0ing effort to talk about unwritten Jewish culture and tradition I want to spend a few moments on Funerals. This week at the PARR conference I co-led a discussion with Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary General Manager Len Lawrence on the changing customs of Jewish burial and funeral practice.  It was a small workshop but we had lively discussion with rabbis across the West.

During the course of our presentation we spoke about the changing expectations of families and the changing customs in regard to Jewish burials.  Jewish burials are down. Not because less Jews are dying but because people are choosing other kinds of goodbyes or none at all.   With rising costs and more intermarriage Jews are not utilizing traditional in ground or crypt burials.  Many more are choosing cremation which according to Jewish tradition and custom and law is not a valid options.  Most Jewish mortuaries will not cremate.  They will facilitate–meaning they will send the body out to another facility who does.  Most Jewish cemeteries will agree to bury ashes.

There are many rabbis who will still not officiate at the funeral of someone who is cremated.  There are others of us who will.

Cremation in Jewish tradition is against halacha-Jewish Law.  Anything that disturbs the body of the deceased conflicts with the Messianic ideal of bodily resurrection.   That is why autopsies are also discouraged and forbidden unless the state requires ones. The body is seen as the sacred vessel of the soul and nothing is to disturb that body even in death.  We are taught a principal of kvod hamet-honor the dead. The body is the vehicle by which we do mitzvot and holiness in the world and this means we honor the body and the holiness it helped us achieve in the world. Other reasons given are that in the face of the Holocaust when we were forcible put in ovens-why would we choose willingly to go into them.

But many are still choosing cremation despite these traditional ideas.  It costs less to be cremated and others believe that the environmental impact is less. Others believe that land usage for burial is not the ideal.  While in our highly mobile society don’t believe anyone would come to visit them so why have a physical place.

Later this week-more on changing burial and funeral customs in the Jewish tradition.

4 thoughts on “Funeral customs are changing

  1. Good discussion rabbi on your continuing series on funeral customs within the Jewish tradition. I’m afraid that for many persons, cost becomes the overarching reason as to why cremation is chosen over burial within a cemetery. ($600 versus $6000). I am in the burial camp and don’t like cremation. Your related prior post on the need for a memorial service of some sort is important as well….more so for those who are still living. It will be interesting to hear what else you learned at your conference on this topic.

    I would also like to hear a history of the local Jewish cemeteries… particularly those located in East Los Angeles which are quite interesting to visit and loaded with history of early Jewish Los Angeles.

  2. If tradition discourages anything that disturbs the body of the deceased, does that mean that organ donation is also discouraged? Is there not also a tradition that permits some “forbidden” acts if they will save the life of another person?

  3. While there is a trend towards cremation, there is also a trend pulling in the opposite direction. Many communities are reviving the traditions of tahara and shimira. New Chevra Kadisha groups are developing across North America. Jews really are learning about their traditions.

    We need to be careful when we talk about why we do things. Cremation is against tradition not because we need all of our body parts. We know that they will decay anyway in ground burial.

    It may be easier to talk about the many reasons for ground burial.

    The issue of price is one that can be addressed. Burial without a casket or liner is much less expensive and in keeping with tradition.

    See our web site at http://www.Jewish-funerals.org for a more detailed discussion.

    1. It would also be helpful to go over the reasons why flowers are not considered appropriate at Jewish funerals, nor open caskets. (This may be obvious for some, but not others depending on their level of Jewish connection). Many of our Christian friends are unaware of these Jewish customs either, and would benefit from learning about them especially when they are present at Jewish burial service.

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