July 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Cremation: Who Would Have Thought?

I am writing to you today to discuss an uncomfortable yet unavoidable topic.

The topic, in a word, is death. Or, to be more precise, burial.

I realize that for most of you, the words “death” and “kevura” are inseparably linked.

After all, what else could follow the death of a Jew than burial? Does the need to emphasize the imperative of Jewish burial even exist?

Unfortunately, there is not just a need to speak about the necessity for a Jewish burial, there is an outright, immediate and pressing obligation to do so, for all of us.

We go to the ends of the earth to reach all the forsaken Jews who have fallen prey to the acculturating and assimilating forces of secular society.

Yet, there is one need in our community that does not receive the attention it should.

Too few of us know about the widespread plague wreaking spiritual havoc among our brothers and sisters. The curse of cremation is now a plague and scourge, horrifically invading our Jewish community.

Who could have believed that we, who lived with those who survived the crematoriums of Auschwitz, would be forced to witness the descendants of those holy survivors willingly choose to be cremated?

Every 16 minutes, another Jew in this country is incinerated by choice.

How can we stand by and allow this to occur? Why are so many Jews opting to incinerate themselves?

The only answer is ignorance. Ignorance on the part of our non-observant and uneducated brethren, and ignorance among us.

Among the non-observant, there is a false belief that cremation is environmentally preferable. Secular culture promotes cremation as cleaner, easier, less burdensome, and progressive. These misleading ideas about the advantages of cremation have tragically gained traction, and thousands of our fellow Jews are now opting for cremation.

We must convey to our brethren that burial has and will remain the only Jewish way of dealing with the deceased.

Recently, a man came to me to inform me that his mother, as she was dying, told him that she had already arranged a prepaid cremation. Her frum son was shocked. The woman his children lovingly referred to as Bubby would be reduced to ashes stored in an urn?

He went back to his mother’s sickbed. Alas, it was too late. She was set in her decision.

When he asked her why, she offered a potpourri of fallacious and unfounded reasons. “It’s better for the environment,” she said, and, “I’m afraid I would feel claustrophobic.” Unfortunately, she had legally appointed an executor, and her son had no ground to stand on.

Things might have ended differently if he had had the conversation sooner.

When his beloved mother passed away, there was no funeral, no kever to visit; all there was were ashes.

However, it didn’t have to end this way. All it takes is our willingness to be informed and to have an uncomfortable conversation before it is too late.

A few years ago, a non-observant woman named Sarah was in shul.

It was Parshas Chayei Sorah. I mentioned how, according to Rabbeinu Yonah, the 10th and most difficult test for Avrohom was finding a burial plot for his wife, Sorah.

I used that as a springboard to discuss the necessity of having that uncomfortable conversation about burial with one’s loved ones well before it’s actually needed. I spoke about NASCK (The National Association of Chevra Kadisha) and the importance of communication before the time when death is imminent.

Years later, I received a phone call from Sarah. She asked me to officiate at the funeral of her recently departed mother.

I asked what made her choose me to officiate at the levaya.

She explained that she always remembered my talk about Avrohom and the test he had in burying Sorah. She decided to have an uncomfortable conversation with her mother. She knew her mother was planning to be cremated. She reminded her mother of the yearly trips taken as a child to the grave of her mother’s grandparents, and how meaningful those visits were.

One day her mother called her and announced she wanted kevuras Yisroel.

The mother explained that she had just attended the cremation of an old friend of hers. When she noticed a sign that read, “We are proud to offer families the opportunity to witness their loved one’s cremation,” she was horrified.

The thought of being proud to witness cremation repulsed her and triggered a 40-year-old memory. She recalled her mother’s funeral, where the chevra kadisha lovingly and gently laid her mother to rest in her grave. She then realized that a Jewish burial was her only option.

Sarah said, “Rabbi, I was totally ignorant of the importance of a Jewish burial. Thank you for making me aware and encouraging me to talk with my mother when I did.”

I need you, the frum, Orthodox Jewish world, who would drop everything to help a Jew connect with his or her Jewish birthright. I am imploring you now to help your fellow Jews connect with their “afterlife right.”

The statistics have reached crisis level.

Projections from the Cremation Association of North America forecast a cremation rate of 59.4% in 2023. Every 16 minutes in the U.S., another Jew is cremated.

Therefore, I need you, and all secular Jews in America need you.

What can you do?

First, wake up and realize the gravity and extent of the problem. Familiarize yourself with the horrific reality that 30,000 Jews per year are being cremated in this country. Arm yourself with information from NASCK (https://www.nasck.org) or better yet, join a NASCK workshop and learn how to prevent a cremation.

The second part of my request is the most crucial. I ask you to leave your comfort zone and approach your fellow Jew.

I know the conversation I am asking you to have is uncomfortable and awkward. It will require thought and time, and may take more than one conversation. However, if we truly believe all of Klal Yisroel’s neshomos are one, how can we not be concerned with the pain of that neshama?

The goal is to reach out to any Jew who may not be planning a Jewish burial. This conversation must be had with all Jews who come into our orbit. We must impress upon them that they deserve, and their neshomos deserve, a Jewish burial.

Rav Soloveitchik would visit his wife’s grave every Friday after she passed away in 1967. This was the only solace he had. As he so poignantly said, “The longing for one who has died and is gone forever is worse than death.”

We must convey to our fellow Jews that they are denying their loved ones the solace one receives by being able to visit their grave.

The task in front of us is formidable.

Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l would motivate us to reach out to our fellow Jews by saying, “The train is leaving for Auschwitz. What are we going to do about it?”

In our times, the train is heading straight toward the crematorium filled with our brothers and sisters. The question we must ask ourselves is: What will we do to halt that train?

The choice is in our hands.

“If not now, then when?”—Hillel


Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman is the rav of Congregation Ahavas Israel, Passaic

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