Jewish Journal

Trendy, traditional and taboo:
An incomplete guide to Jewish funerals and burial

by Jane Ulman

Posted on Aug. 7, 2008 at 1:37 am

Cover photo illustration: Dan Kacvinski<br />
Photos: Jeff Lowe

Cover photo illustration: Dan Kacvinski
Photos: Jeff Lowe

When Eileen Isenberg thinks about her own funeral, she has a very clear picture in her mind.

"First I want 20 minutes of sad," she said, to allow people to remember her, with the second movement of Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto playing in the background.

"Then I want people to bring out the klezmer music and platters of all different kinds of rugelach and chat about the good stuff and the fun."

When it's time to push the casket down the aisle, she wants a band -- she's already picked one -- to break into "When the Saints Go Marching In," New Orleans-style, and the mourners to step in line and escort the casket to graveside.

"I want to leave my dear friends with a sweet taste in their mouths and a twinkle in their hearts," said Isenberg, 77, a Reform Jew who isn't planning to die anytime soon.

This is definitely not what a Jewish funeral used to be. At least not in the non-Orthodox world.

When it comes to thinking about the end of life, be it in the business of funeral homes or in the minds of Jews everywhere, the world is changing.

"It's not about mourning the death anymore. People want to celebrate life," said Isenberg's daughter, Lynn, a Marina del Rey resident who launched a customized funeral planning business, "Lights Out Enterprises," after penning the novel, "The Funeral Planner" (Red Dress Ink, 2005). Lynn Isenberg believes mourners can celebrate without compromising the life and integrity of the deceased.

Blame it on the baby boomers. One outgrowth of the aging of 78 million largely nontraditional Americans born between 1946 and 1964 is that they are revolutionizing the final frontier with personalized send-offs, both for themselves and their parents.

You can also blame it on our death-denying, death-defying culture. Why fall back on those morose, antiquated and tiresome rituals when we can put some "fun" back into the $11 billion funeral service industry?

And you can blame it on the high cost of dying. And the lower cost of cremation. Along with the opportunity to have our ashes mixed with cement and forged into an artificial reef ball, to rest eternally on the ocean floor.

Or blame it on ignorance of Jewish burial and funeral customs. The fact that we don't know a grave from a crypt. Or what to do if we happen to be unaffiliated, intermarried or tattooed.

Still, while not everyone is jumping on the "I gotta be me" funeral bandwagon, a funny thing is happening on the way to the mortuary.

These days, more and more Jews are breathing new life into Judaism's age-old approach to death and dying. They're also sometimes discovering that the rituals -- the ones that have always been followed by the Torah-observant world -- can speak to them as well in fresh and personal ways.

For traditional Jews, this is no surprise.

"It's been done this way for 3,600 years," said Moe Goldsman, who has served as funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park in Sylmar since 1989. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

As with most things Jewish, the practices governing burials are based on Torah: "Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return" (Genesis 3:19), as well as, "As we come forth, so shall we return" (Ecclesiastes 5:14).

They also operate on the principles of respect, speed and simplicity, rendering everyone equal in death, with these key components:

  • Nothing should be done to prohibit the natural decomposition of the body. Embalming or cosmetic enhancement is prohibited.
  • The body is accompanied or watched from the time of death until burial. It is ritually cleansed and dressed in white linen shrouds.
  • Burial is in a plain wooden casket, with no metal parts. The casket remains closed.
  • Burial takes place in the ground, as soon as possible.
  • Flowers are discouraged. Charitable contributions are instead suggested.


Historically, each community's holy society, or chevra kadisha (not to be confused with the Los Angeles for-profit mortuary by the same name), took on the responsibility of caring for the deceased, considered the most sacred task in Judaism because it's a mitzvah that cannot be repaid. Over the years, the non-Orthodox community has relinquished this obligation to the care of strangers.






Jon Kalish of NPR's 'All Things Considered' recorded a chevra kadisha preparing a body


"Someone passes away, you call the mortuary and they pick up the body. You're totally removed," said Sinai Temple's Cantor Joseph Gole. "It wasn't too many generations ago that you did taharah (the ritual cleansing and purification of the body) right on the kitchen table, in the house."

Tachrichim or shrouds, Hillside Mortuary

Court of Tribes mausoleum,  Eden Memorial ParkSinai Temple is at the forefront of a movement to restore the chevra kadisha within the synagogue community. At the request of the family of a deceased, members work in teams of four, with men serving men and women serving women, performing the ritual with respect and dignity. They recite prayers and cleanse the body. They dress the deceased in tachrichim, simple white linen shrouds that signify everyone is equal in death, and they place the body in the casket.

"One of my first taharah was an older woman. She went from looking pained to very peaceful," said Terry Wohlberg, a Sinai Temple lay leader who co-founded the chevra kadisha in 2006 with Gole.

The experience has had a profound impact on the Sinai Temple chevra kadisha members, about 15 men and 15 women who range in age from 20 to 60. About 25 taharahs have been done to date.

The ritual also has changed the way many relatives feel about a loved one's death.

"The most comforting part of burying my father was giving the body to the chevra kadisha. I knew the people. It was like having a friend there for my father," said Jina Rezvanpour, whose father, Dr. Jahangir Bina, died in December 2006 at age 84.

In the Los Angeles area, Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills is among several Orthodox synagogues that have their own chevra kadisha. Additionally, mortuaries can arrange to have taharah performed by a professional chevra kadisha group, people who remain anonymous and are compensated for their work. Meanwhile, other non-Orthodox synagogues are discussing starting their own chevra kadishas.

"Washing a dead body. What could be more mundane? But when we find something that causes people to have this intense experience, we should pay attention to it," said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v'Nichum, a national nonprofit organization, founded in 2000 and headquartered in the greater Washington, D.C., area, dedicated to restoring traditional Jewish death and bereavement practices.

Not all trends are halachically Jewish, however. While the chevra kadisha movement has been gaining ground slowly, another trend, considered forbidden by more traditional Jews, has nevertheless been becoming increasingly popular -- cremation.

There are no statistics on the number of Jews who choose this option, but at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, which is owned by Temple Israel of Hollywood, cremations account for about 10 percent to 15 percent of all mortuary cases, according to Mark Friedman, Hillside's CEO. Friedman added that Hillside doesn't perform the actual cremations -- they are done elsewhere -- but willingly helps families make the arrangements.

At Mount Sinai, cremations comprise less than 5 percent of all mortuary cases, according to Len Lawrence, general manager at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries in Hollywood Hills and Simi Valley, which is owned by Sinai Temple.

Nationally, more than 32 percent of all bodies are cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America's latest figures, published in 2005, with the figure projected to surpass 50 percent by 2025. In California, 52 percent of all deaths are currently cremated.

Ken Krug, 49, an attorney and Reform Jew, said he sees cremation as the way to go. "Utilizing real estate for the purpose of burying people, especially as we become more populous, is a waste of resources," he said.

But Krug, unlike many people, has no sentimental desire to have his ashes scattered. "And if I did, my ashes wouldn't know the difference," he said, stressing that he does want them appropriately discarded and not placed "in a jar on the mantle" or buried. He doesn't see the point of his survivors visiting "a piece of dirt or a piece of marble."

Krug, however, advocates memorial services, which he believes comfort the living.

Rabbi Allen Maller, rabbi emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, has always been a proponent of cremation. "I think that donating to charity is better than investing in real estate for the dead," he said, adding that the high price of funerals and burials upsets him.

Maller, however, believes that it's important for people to bury the ashes, to have a place of memorialization and contemplation that the deceased's children and grandchildren can visit.

And, in fact, in the 1980s, under Maller's leadership, Temple Akiba's congregation approved the construction of a small cremation garden, the Sam and Annette Weiss Memorial Garden, outside the rabbi's office. About 30 Temple members have had their ashes buried there.

"I like the idea that families can do the internment themselves," Maller said.

As far back as 1891, the executive committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which describes itself as "the organized rabbinate of Reform Judaism," debated "Cremation From a Jewish Standpoint."

Two years later they adopted a resolution that if clergy are invited to officiate at the funeral of a Jew who has been cremated, "We ought not to refuse on the plea that cremation is anti-Jewish or irreligious."

In 1980, the Reform Responsa Committee upheld that ruling, adding that ashes "should be treated with respect as human remains" and advocating they be buried in a cemetery and not kept at home.

The committee also stated, "In this generation of the Holocaust we are sensitive to terrible images associated with the burning of a body. Rabbis may, therefore, choose to discourage the option of cremation. The practice remains permissible, however, for our families."

Interior of a pine casket. Top: Court of Tribes mausoleum, Eden Memorial Park


Jewish tradition, however, insists on burial, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at American Jewish University, who also serves as halachic consultant at Mount Sinai. Dorff believes that a decision to cremate stems from financial concerns, as well as lack of education.

"In the Jewish tradition, we don't own our bodies. God owns our bodies," Dorff said. Jewish tradition says nature needs to be left alone to take its course.

Since World War II, the debate about cremation has become increasingly divisive, Dorff added. "In the generations after the Holocaust, in which the Nazis burned us in crematoria, the symbolism is all wrong," he said.

One solution, perhaps, may someday come in the form of a green funeral, where an unembalmed corpse is interred in a biodegradable coffin or shroud, usually in a natural setting.

"Jewish burials have been green burials for centuries," said Mount Sinai general manager Lawrence. In Israel, all bodies, except for those of soldiers and prime ministers, are wrapped in shrouds and placed directly in the ground.

Nonsectarian green burials were first introduced in the United States in 1998 at the 320-acre Ramsey Clark Preserve in Westminster, S.C. Only a handful of green cemeteries or natural preserves have followed, including Fernwood Forever in Mill Valley, Calif., although environmentalists are hoping the concept will catch on. So far, no Jewish cemeteries have taken that route. "The idea has become well known pretty quickly. It's a very credible, thoughtful idea," said Friedman, adding that Hillside might offer green burial in the future, if there's sufficient demand.

New trends in dealing with death are on the rise in other arenas, as well. One is the Internet, where two new Web sites are creating online communities for friends and family to memorialize their loved ones from anywhere in the world.

Till120.com, headquartered in New York, provides notification of deaths in various communities, just by plugging in a zip code. Additionally, relatives and friends of the deceased can post condolences, create permanent online memorials and receive yahrzeit reminders.

Yizkor.com is another site for people to create comprehensive interactive memorials, including biographies, photos, videos as well as relay funeral information.

Another popular arena is the creation of film or video montages of the deceased's life, which are shown at a funeral service.

Teacher and filmmaker Matthew Needleman produced a video for the funeral of his grandmother, Freda Needleman, who died on May 5, 2008, 16 days shy of her 97th birthday.

Because his grandmother didn't want an unfamiliar rabbi delivering the eulogy, Needleman and his mother volunteered. But Needleman, 31, who was close to his grandmother, was nervous about speaking during such an emotional time and decided to film his five-minute eulogy in advance. Almost as an afterthought, he added a five-minute photo montage.

"Everyone was crying," Needleman said. "But halfway through the speech, watching it as if someone else was talking, I felt at peace."

Hillside has renovated its state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment, including built-in, flat-screen monitors. It has also contracted with a film producer Cathee Weiss to create short documentary-style films and montages, as well as memory books, about the deceased.

"I'm interested in the notion of values and character," Weiss said. "My Judaism imbues everything I do." She said that she tries to figure out the most important aspects and attributes of the deceased's life, even when she's working on a two-day deadline for a deceased's family.

Such videos and montages inspire memories and encourage people to talk about the deceased, Weiss explained. From this perspective, many Reform and Conservative rabbis see value in the videos, which they consider a new technology consistent with Jewish tradition.

"The whole point of the mourning process is for family members to express -- literally to press out of themselves -- memories of the deceased," Dorff said. The funeral allows the family to separate physically, while shiva (the seven-day mourning period) helps them separate psychologically, he added.

One trend that impedes this process, however, has been the gradual transformation of shiva, which for some Reform Jews and others has been shortened from seven to three days, or, often, just one day. "It's become a cocktail party, and that's just wrong. It's placed the burden of entertaining on the mourners, which is completely antithetical to its original intention," said Steve Leder, senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Shiva is a time for the community to reach out to the mourners, to comfort them by providing food and the opportunity to talk about their loss, if they wish. It's not a place for small talk or distractions, Leder said, but rather a time to focus on the full life of the deceased.

Which could miss the real point of all this: To focus on the person who has died. To celebrate the life, to mourn the loss. With tears and with laughter. Sometimes with new traditions and with old.

"People have these rituals. It touches them. It's the most revealing moment of a human experience, when death comes, because it brings out everything that is us -- all of our depth, all of our irony and all of our absurdity," said Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.

So in the end, it's impossible to completely regulate.

"People are going to do this in their way," Feinstein said.
Court of the Matriarchs mausoleum, Hillside Memorial Park. Top: Grave prepared for burial, Eden Memorial Park


Web sites:

Jewish Funerals, Burial and Mourning, published by Kavod v’Nichum and the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington

“My Jewish Learning Death and Funeral Practices

“A Guide to Jewish Burial and Mourning Practices” published by the Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California




1022 S. Downey Road

Los Angeles, CA 90023

323 653-8886

800 654-6772

Opened in 1919. Owned and operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary.


1068 S. Downey Road

Los Angeles, CA 90023

213 653-8886

800 654-6772

Opened in 1907. Owned and operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary.


900 N. Gower Street

Hollywood, CA 90038

323 469-2322

877 238-4652


Opened around 1927. Organized as the Jewish section within the larger Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, now called Hollywood Forever.


15270 Woodcrest Dr.

Whittier, CA 90604

310 943-3170

Opened in 1987.


11500 Sepulveda Blvd.

Mission Hills, CA 91345

818 361-7161

800 441-7161

Opened in 1954. Acquired by Service Corporation International (SCI) in 1985.


6001 Centinela Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90045

(800) 576-1994


Opened in 1946. Owned by Temple Israel of Hollywood since the 1950s.


4334 Whittier Boulevard

Los Angeles, CA 90023

323 261-6135

800 300-0223


Opened in 1902 in current location. Owned and operated by Rose Hills Memorial Park.


6505 E. Gage Ave.

City of Commerce, CA 90040

(323) 653-8886

(800) 654-6772

Opened in 1931. Owned and operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary.


7231 E. Slauson Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90040

323 721-4729

Opened in 1948. Donated to Chabad of California in the 1980s.


5950 Forest Lawn Dr.

Los Angeles, CA 90068

(800) 600-0076

(323) 469-6000


Originally founded by Forest Lawn in 1953 and exclusively Jewish since 1959. Owned by Sinai Temple since 1967.


6150 Mount Sinai Drive

Simi Valley, CA 93063

(800) 600-0076


160-acre site purchased in 1997 and opened in 2002. Owned by Sinai Temple.


1030 S. Downey Rd.

Los Angeles, CA 90023

Opened in 1916. Currently owned by Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles and operated by Rose Hills Memorial Park, which owns Home of Peace.


13017 N. Lopez Canyon Road

San Fernando, CA 91342

818 899-5216

Founded in 1951. Privately owned.


13622 Curtis and King Road

Norwalk, CA 90650

(213) 653-8886

Opened in 1938. Owned and operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary.



7832 Santa Monica Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90046

800 654-6772

323 653-8886


Founded in 1976 as a private organization and not a traditional “chevra kadisha.”


7700 Santa Monica Blvd.

West Hollywood, CA 90046

800 300-0223

323 656-6260


11500 Sepulveda Blvd,

Mission Hills, CA 91345

800 522-4875



830 W. Washington Boulevard

Los Angeles, CA 90015

213 748-2201


6001 W. Centinela Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90045

800 576-1994

310 641-0707


Founded in 1946 in association with Hillside Memorial Park.


5950 Forest Lawn Drive

Los Angeles, CA 90068

800 600-0076

323 469-6000


6150 Mount Sinai Drive

Simi Valley, CA 93063

800 600-0076

323 469-6000


Associated with Mount Sinai Memorial Parks.


7366 S. Osage Avenue

Los Angeles, CA 90045

(800) 710-7100


8629 W. Pico Boulevard

Los Angeles, CA 90035

310 659-3055


13017 N. Lopez Canyon Road

San Fernando, CA 91342

818 899-5211


Founded in 1951. Associated with Sholom Memorial Park

# # #

Compiled by Molly Binenfeld and Jane Ulman

A Guide to Jewish Mourning and Condolence” by Jerry Rabow, Valley Beth Shalom

Funerals: A Consumer Guide (Federal Trade Commission)

Consumer Guide to Funeral & Cemetery Purchases (California Department of Consumer Affairs Cemetery & Funeral Bureau)

Funeral Consumers Alliance

The Green Funeral Site


“Mourning & Mitzvah: A Guided Journey for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing” by Anne Brener (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001)

“The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” by Maurice Lamm (Jonathan David Publishers, 2000)

“So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them” by Jack Riemer and Nathan Stampfer (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994)

“A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement” Ron Wolfson (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005)

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