As Kiruv rabbis and educators your relationship with your constituents is the best hope for abating the cremation crisis.
Approximately 50 Jews are cremated every single day in North America. If you are shocked and frustrated by this figure, you are not alone. Rabbi Elchonon Zohn of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha; NASCK, he gets a steady stream of desperate calls and emails from religious Jews who have non-religious friends and family members who have opted for cremation. In some cases, cremation has even tempted disconnected previously religious Jews. Sometimes the cremation can be abated with persuasive arguments; many times it’s just too late.
As with any strategy, the hunt for the highest yield solution should be presented with great care and due diligence – there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. For example, one family might be persuaded by religious arguments, another by a child’s plea to have a burial site to visit, another by fear of burning a body, but these approaches are not for everyone.
As rabbis, you are often asked to officiate at a Jewish burial or unveiling of a monument. You should be aware that you have a rare opportunity at the actual funeral or unveiling to make a passionate plea at this particular time to make the case for Jewish burial. All it takes is great courage during the sermon to make a one to two minute pitch for the importance of Jewish burial. Since many of the attendees could be attending a Jewish burial for the very first time, and since they are at a moment in time facing the reality of their mortality and end-of-life choices, your words could have a profound impact.
Using your discretion and judgment of the family and crowd, you can address the essential Jewish beliefs that impact this moment. You may speak about our belief in a Soul –Neshamah, which is eternal; our belief in S’char v’Onesh – reward and punishment and our final Yom Hadin – final Yom Kippur; or our belief in T’chiyas Hameisim – Resurrection. At this time, you may also explain that when a person dies, the soul hovers around the body.
The soul is the essence of the person – his/her thoughts, deeds, experiences, relationships. The body was its container and the soul refuses to leave the body until it is buried. How we behave around and toward the body must reflect how we would act toward the very person himself at this crucial moment. Now more than ever, the body deserves respect because the soul has real awareness and knows exactly what is going on at a transformative moment with eternal consequence.
In all cases, here is a suggested pitch you could actually make at the funeral home or cemetery itself during the sermon:
“How fortunate, Mr. Smith is to have merited a proper Jewish burial. (The body leaves the world the way it entered. When a newborn enters the world it is immediately cleaned and washed and wrapped in new clothes. When a Jewish person leaves the world, the soul is about to be reborn into a new spiritual world and therefore the body has a tahara, a ritual cleansing and dressing according to Jewish law and customs. There is no embalming or autopsy as this is forbidden. The body is returned naturally and gently to the earth as swiftly as possible in a wooden box. Cremation is forbidden as it is the harshest form of indignity to the body and a pagan violent ritual that denies the existence of G-d. Mausoleums are forbidden since they retard the process of return to the earth. The only acceptable burial is) To have been prepared naturally and respectfully and placed directly in the ground with family members and friends helping to fill the grave completely until a mound is formed. (How fortunate Mr. Smith was indeed to merit a proper Jewish burial.”)
You can also laud the family who made this choice for their loved one in a world that is choosing otherwise. This should be non-judgmental and as positive as possible. You need to be passionate, even emotional, if sincerely so. Using your sense of what will work best for this family and audience, you can focus on any of the following concepts:
- Closure for the family.
- A place for family and future generations to visit.
- Respect for the body that served us. Created in the image of Hashem. We bury treasure and burn the trash.
- Jewish continuity and identity.
- Historically, our enemies sought to destroy us by fire from Nimrod, the burning of the Temples, the Inquisition and Holocaust.
- How much would Holocaust victims have given to have a burial place?
- The damage to the environment
In this article, we present you with a unique challenge. However, you address the cremation crisis in your community using this opportunity, doesn’t mean you can’t use other traditional techniques as well. Here are a few alternative ways in which to educate Jews away from choosing cremation to choosing burial. The best way to prevent a cremation is to educate before there is a crisis.
A simple and non judgemental relatively new book called: Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View by Doron Kornbluth goes through the arguments of why burial is better for the environment, the Earth, your family, your community and your soul. A PowerPoint presentation and series of educational videos are available for organizations to use at www.peacefulreturn.org.
Numerous kiruv organizations have given this presentation and seen positive results from participants changing their wills and even filling out burial forms for the very first time. A simple one page burial form is available for download at http://www.shared.nasck.org/burial-wishes.pdf#zoom=75 .
In addition, the website; www.peacefulreturn.org was created with articles and videos to educate on the importance of choosing burial.
As the multi-billion dollar cremation industry is likely to increase its marketing muscle in the coming years, we will make sure you have all the information necessary to help achieve your educational goals of helping every Jew have a proper Jewish burial.
Robin Davina Meyerson is a marketing consultant, motivational speaker, teacher and author.