I don’t remember much of high school. Even the memory of my teen trip to Israel, which in many ways changed the course of my life, appears in short flashes, like the remaining few intact frames on a long reel of disintegrated film.
In one of these frames, a man named Doron pops his head into our NFTY group 4A tour bus and announces that those of us who do not have family in Israel to visit on the free weekend are welcome to spend the weekend with him and his wife.
Doron is in his late twenties, and he’s energetic and religious. A galaxy, it would seem to my 17-year-old self, could fit between our life stories.
I don’t have family in Israel.
Another frame: I am standing in some courtyard, staring at the ground, pondering my options. A group leader says we may go to a movie over the free weekend. That sounds fun.
Missing is the frame where I decide to go with Doron, but I do retain the memory of deciding that in the future, whenever faced with a risk, I will take it. Observing Shabbat in Jerusalem with an observant couple was an enormous step outside of my comfort zone as a staunchly Reform teenager from Connecticut. I put on an India print skirt that was my mother’s from the ‘70s — the packing list said to bring some “modest” clothing for situations like this — which became the title of an award-winning poem I wrote about that weekend later that year.
The Shabbat weekend with Doron and his wife, Sarah Tikvah, and several rowdy members of my tour group, carved a notch in my spiritual journey. Even though so much escaped my memory, including their last name, when I came across a book by Doron Kornbluth a decade later, as a traveler through Jerusalem, I knew I had reconnected with my host.
The book, “Why Marry Jewish?” opens with a list of words, including Torah scroll, Passover, shofar, and menorah — as well as Jesus on the cross, ham, Christmas tree, and the pope. It’s a thought exercise: Which are comforting? Which strike a nerve? Even I, the product of an interfaith marriage who grew up with both Judaism and Christianity, felt a visceral negative reaction to the Christian words, but a warm familiarity with the Jewish associations. Like the Shabbat in Jerusalem, the opening lines of the book hit me hard. And that is how Doron rolls: He’ll give you the kindest, sincerest punch in the gut you’ll ever get.
Fast forward to last month, when I saw an announcement for a talk by one Doron Kornbluth at the Hillel at the University of Washington and at the West Seattle Torah Learning Center to lecture on his latest research and book, “Cremation or Burial: A Jewish Perspective” over the weekend of Jan. 25. I was excited to reconnect with him all these years later. Over lunch at Island Crust Café he filled me in on the unappetizing details of why more and more Jews are making un-Jewish end-of-life choices.
JTNews: What got you onto cremation and burial as a topic?
Doron Kornbluth: You have this major uptick in cremation rates, nationally and amongst the Jewish community. I was just really bothered by it. People make their own decisions — they’re adults — but the reality is that people don’t have information to make decisions. There are a lot of misconceptions out there. So I started researching it.
JT: Describe the Jewish practice of burial.
DK: For thousands of years Jews have always insisted on burial. A Roman historian, Tacitus, when he was describing the Jews to his Roman compatriots, one of the few defining characteristics that he said was, “Jews bury, rather than burn, the dead.” Even 2,000 years ago it stuck out. The Romans cremated. The Greeks cremated. All these guys cremated. It’s not a new idea; it’s actually an old idea. Jews always stuck out for burial.
JT: So what has happened?
DK: In the last 30 years, cremation rates nationally among non-Jews have gone up. The same with Jews. And in the last four years, it’s gone up dramatically.
Imagine if you’re a Jewish person and you’re looking at the planet, looking at America, and you see that every year 5 percent less of the Jewish community is celebrating Hanukkah. Last year it was 100 percent, 95, 90, and you know that within a few years if you don’t do anything about it, soon it’s just going to be the strictly Orthodox who celebrate Hanukkah. What would you do? How would you feel? I think if you were a caring Jew you’d be concerned about that.
The reality is that it is happening, but it’s happening with different parts of Judaism. It’s happening to Jewish burial. It used to be a given, but because of a lack of education and understanding, it is not a given at all.
JT: What are some factors causing this dramatic rise in cremation?
DK: When it comes to why people are cremating, cost is definitely a big factor. Some cremations are the same cost as burials, but there’s something called direct cremation. The cremation will cost $1,000-$2,000, you call a 1-800 number, they pick up the body at the hospital, they return to you the cremated remains.
JT: Very personal.
DK: No service, you can keep the ashes on your fireplace, you can scatter them, but nobody can beat that cost.
There’s another reason: Mobility. Meaning, it used to be that people for generations would be in the same town. Today, you have grandparents in one city, parents in a different city, kids in another city.
Florida has a very high cremation rate among Jews. I think the main reason is simply that they’re down there, their kids are in the Northeast…
People also think it’s better for the environment. But it’s not. Environmentalists are not in favor of cremation. [This misconception is due to a 1950s campaign against burial because of the pollution caused by metal caskets and embalming.] What does Jewish tradition say? No metal casket, no embalming. Jewish burials are actually a model of environmentalism.
Plants, animals, birds — what do they do? They grow, and they die, and their bodies go back into the earth. So the natural way is actually burial. It’s the way of every living thing. When you’re putting it into a modern oven — and by the way, it’s essentially an Auschwitz oven, it hasn’t changed — you’re firing it up — that’s artificial.
When you have cremated remains, they are indistinguishable from any other cremated remains. You never know if it’s your grandmother’s remains, or a stranger’s, or a cat or a dog.
JT: What is the significance of burying the dead in Judaism?
DK: Israel has released hundreds of terrorists many times in the last 20 years just for bodies of the dead. Every Jew deserves a proper burial.
Most Jews have heard of the idea of tearing kriyah [tearing a garment as a sign of mourning]. You tear kriyah because you are expressing that life is not going on. There’s a loss. Something’s broken. In burial, the earth itself is tearing kriyah. Isn’t it a beautiful symbolism? The earth is opening up. You’re making a tear in the earth.
Not only is the cremation rate very, very high, but funeral services are on the way out. We don’t want to deal with it. Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to receive immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.”
People don’t want to talk about it, but Judaism’s point is “No, we don’t do that.”
The tradition is to bury within a community cemetery, emphasizing that we’re part of a community. We live there together forever. The word “cemetery” comes from the Greek for “sleeping place.” That’s why a grave looks like a bed. Because it’s a quiet, subtle promise of rebirth. It’s kind of a beautiful idea.