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Words Are Not Enough

“Ethel just told me she wants a Jewish burial,” Isaac said breathlessly. “Can you change the will?”


As told to Rivka Streicher by Rabbi Elchonon Zohn

Around 15 years ago, I received a phone call from a man named Isaac in Eretz Yisrael. His great-aunt — whom he’d been close with — had died, and he was calling me because she was at risk of being cremated.

His great-aunt was Ethel Barr, the daughter of a talmid of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor. Her father had come to America after the war and settled somewhere in the Midwest, where he was a rabbi and shochet. However, when Ethel came of age, she left her family and moved to New York. She had dreams of going to drama school and becoming an actress. Eventually she married a guy who was Jewish but not religious. They never had any children.

Ethel was 105 when she passed away, and in her later years, she spoke freely of death. Her friends, her people, everyone knew that Ethel wanted to be cremated. She’d put it in her will as well, and she had a pre-need arrangement with the funeral home for her cremation. She’d also had her husband cremated — he’d died some 25 years before her — and had his ashes sprinkled in the land of Israel. For the little that she cared about religion, she had strong feelings for Israel.

At one point after her husband’s death, her great-nephew Isaac came to New York to study. He lived in her home while studying, and it was during this time that he became a baal teshuvah. Ethel had taken to talking frequently of her own mortality, and Isaac had ample opportunity to speak with her about the importance of a Jewish burial. He tried to get her to change her liberal views about cremation, but all his talking seemed futile.

Then one day she walked into the house and gave her straight-out death talk again. She said, “Isaac, you’re going to be happy. I decided I want to be buried rather than cremated.”

She was 103 at the time, and Isaac hurried to call his cousin Gilad, the executor of Ethel’s will. He was Ethel’s nephew, himself about 80 years old.

“Ethel just told me she wants a Jewish burial,” Isaac said breathlessly. “Can you change the will?”

Gilad said he’d take care of it, and that was that.

Now it was two years later, and Ethel had died. But apparently Gilad had made no such change to the will.

When Isaac called him, Gilad said he swore that Ethel had wanted to be cremated, she’d been saying so her entire life. He hadn’t changed the will because he was sure that Ethel had only said what she did about burial to make Isaac happy and to get him off her back.

“I’m taking this to court,” Isaac said to Gilad.

“Well, I’m going on vacation,” said the retired cousin, and just like that, the executor of the will flounced away and out of the picture.

Meantime, the director of the funeral home received a letter from Isaac’s lawyer to say that Ethel’s body dare not be cremated. Caught in the middle, he kept the body in the refrigerator for weeks on end.

In that time, the executor of the will vacationed around Europe, and the case came before a judge. As it happened, the judge was Jewish.

“Is there anything in writing about a burial?” she asked.

She was presented Ethel’s will and the pre-need contract with the funeral home.

“It’s a clear case, then,” said the judge. “We go by what’s in writing.”

At that, there was a clanging from the back of the room. A woman walked in through the back doors and proclaimed, “Ethel Barr was my mother’s best friend. I knew her well, and I know that she wanted to be buried despite having said her whole life that she wanted a cremation. I even know where she was going to be buried.”

“Do you have that in writing?” asked the judge.

When the woman couldn’t answer in the affirmative, the judge shook her head and banged her gavel.

“Let Ethel’s body be cremated,” she said.

But that wasn’t the end of it. There was Isaac on the case, there was her old friend’s daughter, and both of them were saying she’d wanted a burial at the end. We thought there was a real chance to save Ethel Barr from cremation, so our organization, National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), took the case back to court.

We got an affidavit from the woman — the friend’s daughter. She was a baalas teshuvah too, and her mother was Ethel’s best friend. We learned that it was because of her that Ethel had agreed to her great-nephew Isaac’s request. She hadn’t thrown that out to get him off her back, she’d changed her mind for real. And the part about the burial space was true as well. Apparently, there was a space next to the deceased best friend that was originally intended for her husband — but since he wasn’t Jewish, he couldn’t be buried there. NASCK worked with the cemetery to make that plot available for Ethel.

The case went back to court. We flew in Gilad (he was finally back from vacation). We had affidavits from the friend’s daughter and from the chaplain of the nursing home, who’d known Ethel and knew that she wanted to be buried. He was Conservative and clearly not Orthodox, but he was behind us all the way to try ensure Ethel got a Jewish burial.

All of this came before the judge, but she hardly heard. She had one question that she asked over and over again: “Is this in writing?”

It wasn’t, and she, a Jew herself, saw it as a case of Orthodox people trying to push their view and agenda. In the end, she banged her gavel again, and said, “Let her be cremated.”

And so, after months, Ethel’s body was removed from the refrigerator, and the ground next to her best friend remained empty, while her body was unmercifully cremated.

This case was in the papers — it was a big one, a complex one. We were doing it for Ethel Barr alone, but we also thought that a case like that, with all the witnesses we had, we stood a good chance and could maybe set a legal precedent. I personally raised thousands of dollars so NASCK could take this case to court.

Sadly, the decision did not go our way — and not only that, it reinforced the legal opinion that personal choices like this must absolutely be committed to writing. And while our organization is so often successful in speaking to family members in time to make proper burial arrangements, this case was a stark reminder that far too many are lost.


Rabbi Elchonon Zohn is the founder and president of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), an organization that provides support and networking for chevros kadisha, and the longtime director of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, New York.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 953)

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