August 7, 2008
Trendy, traditional and taboo:
An incomplete guide to Jewish funerals and burial
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
Sinai 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
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
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