Saturday, January 28, 2023

In your most recent issue, Rabbi Ron Yitzchok writes of the “curse of cremation” and how this “plague (is) wreaking spiritual havoc” in the Jewish community (“Cremation: Who Would Have Thought,” January 5, 2023).

I’m staying away from eschatology, but here are two observations:

First, in his article, Rabbi Yitzchok quotes a Jewish mother, who told her son that cremation is “better for the environment.” Although cremation may not be a leading cause of climate change (and poor air quality), I suspect that Bill McKibben is right: “In a World on Fire, (We Should) Stop Burning Things.” The New Yorker, March 18, 2022.

Second, as set out beautifully in Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death (Revisited),” cremation was initially the American funeral industry’s plague because cremation not only eliminated the need for a costly coffin (or “casket” as “funeral directors” prefer to call them), but cremation also reduced the role of the undertaker.

Not to worry, though, the United States funeral industry bounced back and “cremation has become just another way of making a buck, principally through the sale of the niche and urn, plus ‘perpetual care’ for the ashes.” From “The American Way of Death (Revisited),” page 115.

In that connection, the fact that the mother had arranged a “pre-paid cremation” jumped out. Funeral industry chicanery with respect to prepaid funeral services—including the manipulation of pre-paid burial trust accounts—is set out in “The American Way” in chapter 15: “Pay Now— Die Poorer.”

Miss Mitford’s classic (she died of cancer in 1996) deserves another revision and update, but if she were with us now, I’m confident she would agree that—on an economic basis—a traditional Jewish burial is a much better deal.

James Veach
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