August 7, 2008
Trendy, traditional and taboo:
An incomplete guide to Jewish funerals and burial
(Page 3 - Previous Page).
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
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
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