How can we spare our fellow Jews from the calamity of cremation?
Thousands of elderly Jews will pick cremation over burial if they aren’t guided otherwise, yet any frum person they interact with, whether a chaplain, nursing home staffer, or even a neighbor or chesed visitor, can open the door to a relationship that will lead another Jewish neshamah to rest in peace. While starting a conversation about such a seemingly morbid subject feels impossible, those who’ve succeeded will tell you how
Rabbi Shalom Lubin, director of Chabad of Southeast Morris County in New Jersey, rabbi of Congregation Shaya Ahavat Torah in Parsippany, a nursing home chaplain, and a chevra kaddisha member for 22 years, has been there for hundreds of elderly Jews at the loneliest stage of their lives.
He tells us about a sobering conversation he had recently. Over breakfast one morning, a work colleague mentioned that he had not purchased a cemetery plot.
“Is this something we can discuss?” Rabbi Lubin asked.
“No,” the elderly man replied. “There’s nothing to talk about. Me and my wife, we decided we want to be burned.”
“Cremation used to be anathema,” Rabbi Lubin says. “It’s the big fight in today’s world, unfortunately. Covid exacerbated it tremendously. More and more Jews are choosing cremation as an option.”
The numbers are staggering. Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, director of the Chevra Kaddisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens and the founder and president of the National Association of Chevra Kaddisha, estimates that 30,000 Jews are cremated every year. And every single one is a tragedy.
To a frum Jew who believes the body holds a soul, that it deserves respect even once the soul has departed for the Next World and that one day there will be techiyas hameisim, when the body and soul will be reunited, the concept is repugnant.
But for secular people, including irreligious Jews, cremation often becomes the default option.
“A lot of people don’t have that many children, or the children don’t live close by, and they say, ‘Well, who’s going to visit me?’ ” says Rabbi Lubin, who founded Garden State Chevra Kaddisha in 2016.
“They went to Hebrew school, they had a bar or bat mitzvah, but they’re not aware that Jews believe in Olam Haba... if it’s over when it’s over, what difference does it make? Who cares?”
“I just had a case,” he says, “where a woman insisted on being cremated. She had three children, and two are frum. Frum, chareidim, shomer Shabbos, everything. She insisted on being cremated, and made sure that her legal guardian was the one child who was not frum.”
“The normalization of this brutal practice comes from lack of respect,” Rabbi Zohn says.
“When we recognize that people have value, we don’t just destroy them. Fifty years ago, people rarely ever cremated. And today it’s 60 percent in the United States, and more than that in Europe — and look at the respect we have for people. The level of respect for our elders, for our parents, for our teachers, even for politicians, for anyone — there is no respect.”
Yitzi Weiss*, a nursing home administrator in New Jersey, says he sees two types of families when it comes to end-of-life planning.
Some want to bury their relative in a standard non-Jewish cemetery. “This was what he wanted,” they’ll say. Or, “I never really had the chance to ask him if he wanted a Jewish burial or not.”
Others are apathetic. “If you can make it easier for me, I don’t mind. I don’t care either way, so whatever’s easier.”
“That gives me leeway to get some Jewish organization involved,” says Yitzi.
But there’s also a financial angle. Cremation can be five times cheaper than a funeral, making it a seductive option for both individuals and institutions.
“When we have a resident who we know is Jewish but has no family, nobody around, and he passes away,” Yitzi says, “the problem usually comes to funding.
“Who’s funding the funeral? I would love to say that all the Jewish organizations that deal with end-of-life will pay for it, but that’s not usually the case.”
And even when there’s funding, getting permission to do a Jewish burial can be complicated.
“It has to go to the guardian, if there is a guardian, or the state. And we’re always talking about hours, because sometimes I have a few hours for him to get out of my building. Sometimes they want to do testing. Once a funeral home takes over, I’m disconnected. Unless I get a Jewish organization involved, I don’t necessarily know what happens next.”
“It’s every Jew’s responsibility to see that another Jew gets buried,” says Rabbi Zohn. “The Gemara says that people who work have to stop and take care of it. It’s just that we have a chevra kaddisha, which takes that responsibility away from everybody else. But if people are not going to a chevra kaddisha… it’s everyone’s responsibility.”
Start the Conversation
Rabbi Lubin thinks that one of the big mistakes in our society is that we don’t talk enough about death. “We don’t talk enough about the Jewish perspectives, and the halachos associated with kevurah, with the taharah, with shemirah, with a chevra kaddisha.
“One of the main reasons I got involved in the chevra kaddisha,” he continues, “is because I deal with a lot of non-frum people. And they don’t know what taharah is. So when I tell the wife, I tell the kids, ‘I’ll do it myself, I knew your father, I’m gonna do it,’ people say, ‘Rabbi, I don’t know what it is, but if you do it, we know we can trust you. Whatever you need to do is fine.’ ”
Rabbi Lubin encourages rabbanim and rebbetzins of kehillos to participate in at least a taharah or two. “If we don’t know what it is ourselves, how are we supposed to explain to other people the value and the beauty of what our Torah tells us to do when it comes to dealing with people once they’re niftar?”
He also appeals to elderly people directly, speaking in many venues, including the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Federation, and senior groups.
“I talk about the Jewish way of death and dying, or death and mourning. And I go through the process, step by step, and let them know what happens during a taharah. Let them understand the dignity Yiddishkeit offers for the body of a niftar. How even in a taharah, you never pass something over the body, how people are standing on either side of the table, and we go around, you never pass something over, you treat it with dignity and respect. They like that, they don’t know that stuff.”
Another thing people respond to is learning that Jewish burial is green burial; cremation burns fuel and releases toxins into the air. “People who are environmentally friendly are open to that concept a little more as well,” says Rabbi Lubin.
Education isn’t foolproof, but it helps. “Have I talked people out of cremation?” Rabbi Lubin asks. “A hundred percent, yes. Have I gotten people to do taharahs and have kosher levayos? A hundred percent yes. Have I been successful always? A hundred percent no.”
When young rabbanim call him up with a cremation crisis, the first thing he says is, “Listen. We’ll fight as hard as we can. But unfortunately, you’re not going to win every case.”
Still, at least starting the conversation, despite the uncertainty involved, can have an unfathomable impact. But when there’s no one reaching out, the situation is bleak.
Build a Relationship
Residents in nursing homes are often particularly vulnerable, and this places a heavy burden on frum nursing home administers. When someone is responsible for food, housing, and programming for thousands of other Jews, he faces real halachic problems, which only intensify when it comes to end-of-life issues.
Yitzi highly recommends that anyone in the field read the book Healthcare Facilities in Halachah, a compilation of diverse halachos relating to operating nursing homes and assisted living facilities put out by the Bais Din Maysharim in Lakewood, and published by Israel Bookshop Publications in 2021.
“There are basar v’chalav issues, there’s Shabbos issues, there are putting people on hospice and end-of-life issues… I recommend everybody use it,” Yitzi says. “It isn’t a substitute for asking a rav, but at least they’ll know what the questions are.”
These questions are complicated by the fact that nursing homes and rehab centers, are the most regulated industry in the country.
“An administrator is responsible for all aspects of a nursing home facility,” says Yitzi. “And we can’t get involved in religion. We offer kosher options — but if I want to give the person kosher food, and at a certain point they want pork chops, there’s not much I can do. If they want a rabbi to come, I’ll get a rabbi. If they want a priest, I’ll get a priest.”
“We’ve had very little success with nursing homes,” says Rabbi Zohn. “It’s very complex. Whether it’s social workers, administrators, or chaplains — they’re all afraid of stepping on the toes of families.”
A friend of Yitzi’s was training to be an administrator in a large facility. When a Jewish patient with no relatives passed away, this friend managed to get Chabad involved, and they came and buried the niftar.
A few hours later, somebody claiming to be this man’s son showed up. He wasn’t happy. The actual administrator on call, a non-Jewish woman, got involved in all sorts of legal issues.
“It’s scary,” says Yitzi. “If you’re doing the right thing, it can come back to bite you.”
Can anybody influence outcomes for an individual resident? Yitzi stresses that they can. But it’s a diplomatic endeavor. He says the less someone is affiliated with a facility, the more impact he can have.
Hospice providers might be able to bring in a rabbi to speak with a patient, but he says that it’s often someone from the outside, be it a DME (durable medical equipment) provider, or someone else who isn’t working for the facility, who can leave an impression.
“If you’re not working for a facility, there’s more you can do,” Yitzi says. “It’s relationship building.”
Rabbi Lubin agrees that there’s lots of potential for outsiders to help.
“Who’s lighting Shabbos candles with these people, who’s making Kiddush for them, who’s putting tefillin on them?” He speaks from experience: as a child, he regularly went to a shul that his father still runs today inside a nursing home.
The First Discussion
How do you open a conversation with someone about such a sensitive topic?
“Opening a conversation is really not that difficult,” says Rabbi Zohn. “You could mention something you read in the newspaper, something about the amount of carbon that cremation puts into the air.”
More people today are comfortable discussing the fact that they’re not going to be around forever, especially post-Covid, Rabbi Lubin says. It’s normal to buy life insurance, make a will, and meet with an eldercare attorney.
Rabbi Zohn addresses the financial element that may come up as well. “When our refrigerator breaks down,” says Rabbi Zohn, “or our car breaks down, we don’t say, ‘Well, we can’t afford it.’ It’s important. Burial is as important as any other aspect of life events, whether it’s marriage, school, or a career.”
“So many baalei teshuvah have relatives who aren’t frum,” says Rabbi Lubin. “They worry, what’s going to be with my relatives after they pass on?” He emphasizes the need to start an ongoing conversation in advance, before emergencies strike.
“And it’s not so hard,” he reassures us. “The easy way to do it is to talk about parents and grandparents. Ask, where are they buried? Have you ever been to the cemetery there? Is it a family plot? Do you have plots somewhere?
“And once you have that, it would be important to have a taharah, to have shemirah… but the first thing is to find out what their plan is.”
“Why is the first real-estate transaction in the Torah buying a cemetery?” Rabbi Lubin asks. “Why couldn’t it be buying a kindergarten, or buying a place to build a house? Because we understand the value of kever avos. We understand that if we don’t know where we come from, we don’t have much of a future.
“So if you explain to someone the value of being near family, their parents, their grandparents, their loved ones, it’s possible. There’s a certain value to it that resonates with people. But these are things that sometimes take time, from initial conversation to action. And that’s important.”
It’s also important for elderly people themselves to plan ahead. Rabbi Lubin once asked a room of elderly men whether they knew their Hebrew names. Most of them did — and they could proudly recite their parents’ names, too. But when he asked them if their children knew those Hebrew names, all the hands went down.
“Wherever you have your important papers,” he told them, “write down your name, your parents’ Jewish name, if you’re a Kohein, if you’re a Levi, any other valuable family history.
“The same thing with a tallis,” he continued. “Men are buried in a tallis, and it’s preferable if they’re buried in their own tallis. If your kids don’t know where it is, write a note.”
Rabbi Lubin once met with a doctor in his sixties, whose mother, a Holocaust survivor, had suddenly passed away. “Do your parents have plots?” he asked.
“Rabbi, I don’t know,” the doctor responded. “They never discussed anything with us related to their own deaths. I have no idea.”
“These are things that are discussed in the Torah,” says Rabbi Lubin, “but when you make it a secret… People don’t know that buying a grave is a segulah for arichas yamim. You don’t have to be scared to talk about these things.”
“I really push everybody to meet when they’re lucid, when they’re fully there,” Yitzi says. “Let’s say a year ago a resident told me they want A, and now they have dementia. Now the son and daughter have the power of attorney and they say B. I’ve got to go with that.” Legally clarifying end-of-life wishes in advance is essential.
“It doesn’t start with a person passing away without relatives or family or money,” says Rabbi Lubin. “It starts before that. And we need to pick up the pace.
“If you know of someone Jewish who lives alone, try to reach out, to meet their family. I try to do that — if I meet someone in a nursing home, I go to the office and say, ‘Hi, I’m the rabbi, I want to call their children.’
“I let them know that I’m involved in their parents’ lives. If they don’t know who I am, why will they listen to me later?”
“The relationships with families are extremely important,” says Yitzi, “because they’re the ones who will make the decisions, at the end of the game.”
Rabbi Zohn is currently working with a woman whose sibling recently died. She wanted to bury her sibling in a Jewish cemetery, but planned to cremate the body first due to financial concerns. She told her rabbi about the plan, who said, “You can’t bury ashes in that cemetery, because it’s Orthodox.”
“Now we’re working on it,” says Rabbi Zohn. “But if this person hadn’t reached out before the cremation plan….”
Rabbi Zohn is passionate about the need for more people to step up to the plate. “We need to sensitize people within the community,” he says. “We have an achrayus.”
And Rabbi Lubin stresses the need to take preemptive action. Most people in the frum world likely have contact with someone who isn’t frum on a somewhat regular basis, he says. “Whether it’s a pharmacist, a doctor, a lawyer — if we found out that they died and would be cremated, we would jump into action.
“So the time to start the action of caring about them is while they’re alive and healthy and well. And then, once you have a relationship, you know that they have children and they care a little bit, whatever it is — you have a much greater chance of having a permanent influence on the whole family.”
“Any frum person who has a non-frum relative and thinks, Well, once I hear they pass away, I’ll fight as hard as I can to make sure they have a Yiddishe kevurah, is fooling themselves, he says. “You can’t wait until they pass away. You have to begin the conversation while they’re alive.”
“When you open up a Shulchan Aruch,” says Rabbi Lubin, “before you come to hilchos Aveilus, you have hilchos Bikur Cholim. Because visiting the sick… and being a part of their lives while they’re alive — comes before taking care of them afterward.”
When Rabbi Lubin was a yeshivah bochur at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey, he went with some friends to visit a Jewish woman in her sixties who was developmentally delayed.
“She had the mental faculties of a child,” he says. “The administrator of the home was Jewish, but whoever was in charge of the social work department wasn’t, and they try to have some sort of plan in these cases.” The woman had one brother, her legal guardian, who insisted he would plan a Jewish service for her. But then he passed away without any money.
“Years later, the woman had a medical emergency. “I was kind of the only person of in her life…. And she fell, she broke her hip, so they started calling me from the hospital with medical questions because my name was on the chart.” Rabbi Lubin started making decisions for her, because who else was going to do it?
“I sat down with the nursing home staff and told them, ‘Listen. If I’m making decisions for her, I should probably at least have the legal authority to do it.’ So they put me down as her guardian. And ultimately when she passed away, we arranged for a levayah, and she was buried, and everything was a hundred percent kosher.
“But that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t know her when she was alive? The time to get involved is when people are alive.”
In one of his facilities, Yitzi had a Jew come in every single week and give out cookies to all the Jewish residents. “He gave to other residents also,” says Yitzi, “but for him, the endgame was really to get Jewish residents to kevuras Yisrael. They spoke a little bit about Yiddishkeit, and he was able to build a relationship.”
One day, this man texted Yitzi: A resident told me he’s Jewish, can you get him stuff for his Seder?
The elderly man remembered having a Seder when he was little, and though his estranged children weren’t happy about their father’s interest in Judaism, he wanted to try it out. Yitzi got him supplies for his Seder, and when he eventually transferred to another facility, put him in touch with a rabbi from a hospice company. He kept up with the rabbi, and at one point, he was even putting on tefillin.
He passed away a few weeks ago. And before he was niftar, he withdrew his children’s authority to make decisions about his burial. “We brought him to kevuras Yisrael,” Yitzi says. “And it started from cookies.”
“A lot of the young nursing home administrators and owners today,” says Rabbi Lubin, “are determined to run their establishments based on the highest standards of halachah, instead of relying on a weak, bedieved heter. And because of that, they have gotten more involved in the lives of non-frum residents, to try to avoid the types of situations where someone who’s living in a Jewish-owned nursing home ends up getting cremated.There’s a higher awareness, a higher push to really do things right.”
“If it’s done with seichel,” says Rabbi Zohn, “and if people really are committed to doing it, they can do it the right way, without any real danger of overstepping. You just have to want to do it, and be willing to take the time, and to learn what’s available that you can do.”
He recommends that every nursing home should require each resident to have a plan. “In that process, we could have the chaplain speak to them, or we could have the social worker speak to them.” Especially for people with no livingfriends or relatives, these discussions can be crucial.
Even if facility administrators are legally barred from getting involved in a resident’s burial plans, Yitzi encourages them to pay attention.
“Be more tuned in to who’s coming into the building,” he says. “At least have the people to reach out to, people who could actually make a difference.”
“Before a planned cremation,” says Rabbi Lubin, “a lot of people wake up — oh, hold on, let’s try to stop this. But there’s a lot that can be done while they’re alive, that we shouldn’t take for granted.”
The key is to reach out before a crisis hits.
The Sordid Details
Sometimes, Rabbi Lubin says, all it takes to convince someone to be buried is explaining the horrors of cremation.
He’ll say to people, “Listen, if you had a baseball bat that was used by Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio, and you passed away, and your kids aren’t baseball fans, would you be okay if they just ran it through the chipper?”
Their faces drop. “Run it through the chipper? This is a bat that was used by Mickey Mantle! You can’t run it through a chipper!”
Rabbi Lubin retorts, “Hey, what do you mean? We’ll make woodchips out of it, we’ll plant something.”
“That would be terrible!” his listeners respond in shock.
Then he pulls out his trump card. “If you wouldn’t do it with a baseball bat, how can you do it with a human being?”
“The process of cremation is terrible,” he says soberly. “How does a person get turned into ashes? When they put the person in an oven, they’re left with bones. You’re not left with a pile of ashes. You’re left with bones. So they take the bones, and run them through a grinder to get the ashes.
“When people hear this stuff, they go crazy. But they don’t know. All they know is that it’s cheap, and it’s easy, and it’s simple.”
Rabbi Zohn echoes this theme. “We bury things that we treasure,” he says. “We burn things that are disposable, that are seen as worth getting rid of. An example we often give is that we don’t burn the aron kodesh after we take out the Torah… We believe that a person is the purpose of Creation, that’s who we are at our essence, and we contain within us a neshamah, a soul. I think people believe that, even if they don’t know what that means.
“And the fact is, we are different from other animal life. It’s not to say other animal life has no value, but we are different. And so when that neshamah leaves, we give kavod to that person. We believe that the neshamah continues to live and that it lives eternally. And therefore, as the container of a part of G-d Himself, the body needs to be respected.”
Rabbi Lubin quotes a famous story about Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the previous (sixth) Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was imprisoned in the 1920s for spreading Yiddishkeit in Communist Russia, and during interrogations, one of the guards pulled out a gun. “Rabbi,” he said, “you see this toy? This toy has made many grown people talk.”
The Rebbe looked at him and said, “That toy will make people talk if they have many gods and one world. But I have One G-d and two worlds. So that toy doesn’t scare me.”
“The whole idea that the neshamah comes into This World from somewhere and goes back somewhere afterward — the journey of the neshamah — is not something most non-frum people are familiar with or even aware of,” Rabbi Lubin says.
Reach Out for Resources
Rabbi Zohn runs an initiative called Shabbos Vayechi. “On that Shabbos,” he says, “we have hundreds of shuls across the country talk about end-of-life awareness and preparation. And we have a whole host of topics — halachic living wills, speaking about the value of life, and reaching out to people to see that they are buried.”
In conjunction with last year’s program, which focused specifically on cremation, the Shabbos Vayechi initiative created two websites to guide frum people speak to their peers, friends, and relatives about this topic. Rabbi Zohn explains:
Endcremation.org is directed at frum people, explaining to them why they need to get involved, why it’s so important, and that they can make a difference. You don’t have to be a hospital administrator or a rav to discuss this with a cousin, an uncle, a neighbor down the hall or a coworker.
Lastkindness.org is directed at the secular community, giving them food for thought as to why they might reconsider and consider burial rather than cremation. In places like California, the cremation rate is 70 percent among the general population, maybe even more than that. And it’s almost the same among Jews.
“If we could have some counterbalance, it could make a big difference to that very powerful drive for people to just do what everyone else is doing,” says Rabbi Zohn. “Because that’s what cremation really is today. It’s a progressive, liberal, modern way of doing things in a way that doesn’t burden anybody, and there are a lot of other reasons for it, it’s not only financial.”
Another website, peacefulreturn.org, has been providing comprehensive information about the history and values of Jewish burial for almost 15 years. The website features content in English and Russian.
For financial difficulties, there are resources as well.
“Cremation is cheap, and burial is expensive,” says Rabbi Lubin. ”And even in our world, it’s expensive. Even if you’re not going to Eretz Yisrael, it’s still thousands of dollars. So, baruch Hashem, in the Jewish community, we’ve always had the concept of chesed shel emes.
“There’s a wonderful organization called the Hebrew Free Burial Society, which is located in Staten Island. And they have a cemetery there where they’ve been burying people for free for over a hundred years. Like the girls who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire — many of them are buried in that cemetery in Staten Island.”
Chesed shel Emes is another organization that does a similar thing. They have their own cemeteries upstate.
There are groups around the country by this name; the one in New York (chesedshelemes.com), founded in 1985, operates seven cemeteries and provides a host of other resources including a fatality response team and a 24-hour hotline (855.273.2121).
In 2019, Rabbi Zohn’s organization opened its own cemetery, the South Florida Jewish Cemetery. “It offers very low-cost burial. We’ve now sold about 3,000 graves. Most of those people — not all, but a very large percentage of them — would have been cremated if it weren’t for the fact that they had a low-cost option for burial. Baruch Hashem, it’s made a tremendous kiddush Hashem.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 979)
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