COVER STORY: Cremation still a sensitive topic in community

Most branches of Judaism forbid cremation.

Cremation may be the final taboo for Jews. Most branches of Judaism discourage or forbid it, but even in denominations where it is encouraged, Canadian Jews overwhelmingly prefer to be buried in the ground.

Part of the abhorrence of cremation stems from the Holocaust and the Nazis’ crematoria, where thousands of Jews perished.

 “There’s an acute sensitivity to this, post-Shoah, that changes the emotional tenor” of the discussion about burial options, said Rabbi Debra Landsberg, who serves as the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and is chairperson of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto.

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Even among unaffiliated Jews, tradition still holds sway when it comes to burials, said Rabbi Jennifer Gorman, executive director for Mercaz Canada and the Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism.

A Conservative rabbi for more than 20 years, she says she has never been asked to officiate at a funeral involving cremation. “We do a lot of funerals from people who aren’t members of a congregation, and among those people, primarily they feel [burial] is the way Jews do death.”

Jewish death practices hold that respect for the body is paramount, with an emphasis on burial as soon as possible. Cremation is seen by the Conservative movement as contravening the value of honouring the dead, she said. 

Although the practice is not acceptable, some rabbis will officiate at a funeral before a cremation has occurred.

For the Reform movement, the answer is similar. Cremation is discouraged and not part of accepted traditional practice, says Rabbi Landsberg. Rabbis will conduct funeral services before the cremation, rather than send the family away from the Jewish community altogether, but in practice it rarely happens.

 In Calgary, Reform Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman, sees cremation as a personal choice, although it is rarely exercised in his congregation.

 “Reform prides itself on autonomy and personal choice,” he says. While historically Jews have chosen burial, “some people for many different reasons do not want a traditional burial.”

The few Jews who have chosen cremation, however, tend to want their remains interred, he said.

While many Jewish cemeteries do not permit the interment of cremated remains, his congregation, Temple B’nai Tikvah, has its own cemetery where cremated remains can be interred.

Toronto Hebrew Memorial Parks, which administers the two largest Jewish cemeteries in the GTA, Pardes Shalom and Pardes Chaim, does not permit cremated remains to be buried or scattered on its premises, said executive director Howard Mammon.

Even in the most liberal reaches of Judaism, where cremation is seen as a valid choice, few Jews choose it as an option. 

“We’re very pro-cremation, but the majority of our members prefer to be buried,” said Rabbi Eva Goldfinger, life-cycles director at Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Toronto.

From an ethical point of view, cremation is a valid choice, since it leaves more available for the living, she said. 

“We don’t have a religious position on it [cremation], we have an ethical and a choice position on it.”

Oraynu has purchased a section of a non-denominational cemetery where it does traditional burials for members. Cremated remains can also be interred and the individual can be memorialized with a stone or a marker, Rabbi Goldfinger said.