Ashes to ashes

All three major religions in Israel are against it, but cremation is catching on.

By MATTHEW WAGNER
November 10, 2005 10:56
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Victoria Ortman did not want the sound of a shovel stabbing the ground at her funeral. She did not want her body lowered into a cold grave. She wanted her remains to leave the world quickly. She wanted cremation. Chava, Ortman's daughter, honored her mother's wish. Victoria's will stated that her body should be flown to Europe for cremation. Shipping the body abroad is expensive, almost $6,000 including cremation. Money was set aside to cover the costs, but before her time came, a new development changed Victoria's plans. In June of this year, Alon Nativ, a self-described atheist who owns and manages the Aley Shalechet (Autumn Leaves) Funeral Home, imported, assembled and began operating the first crematorium for commercial use in Israel's history. For the Ortmans it was a relief. Victoria arranged for cremation in Israel at less than half the cost. On August 3, just four months short of her 93rd birthday, Victoria Ortman, a Polish Holocaust survivor, passed away at Wolfson Hospital. As agreed, Nativ's firm, Alei Shalechet, collected Ortman's body and prepared it for cremation. But Ortman's transition to ashes would not be smooth. Enter Eitan Kyubatero, Victoria's grandson and Chava's nephew. Eitan is a Breslav hassid who abandoned his secular lifestyle and law practice to learn Torah full-time in a kollel in Safed. When he learned of his grandmother's death, Kyubatero, in his 30s, contacted Zaka, the Hebrew acronym for Identification of Disaster Victims. Zaka, a volunteer organization founded by haredim in 1995, is dedicated to making sure all bits of flesh, bone and blood that remain after a car accident or terrorist attack are buried according to Jewish law. "We did everything we could to obtain a restraining order to delay the cremation," recounts Michael Gutwine, head of Zaka's legal department. "Eitan claimed Wolfson Hospital was guilty of malpractice; we argued before the court that cremation was immoral," said Gutwine. "According to Jewish faith the body is not your private property. You can't do whatever you want with it. Respect for the dead and the importance of burial is a strong Israeli value. Israel frees terrorists in exchange for the bodily remains of MIAs. The IDF goes to great lengths not to leave dead soldiers in the battlefield." The court issued a restraining order on the body of Victoria Ortman, who happens to be a direct descendant of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter (1799-1866), founder of the Ger Hassidic dynasty and known as HaRim, after his scholarly works Chidushei HaRim. Zaka, Kyubatero and various rabbis put pressure on Chava Ortman to bury her mother. At dawn, after a sleepless night up with Kyubatero discussing the matter, Chava gave in. On August 11, Victoria was interred at Hod Hasharon Cemetery. "To this day I am not comfortable with my decision," says Chava Ortman. "My mother wanted cremation. But I was pressured. Complete strangers interfered in my mother's personal decision. Eitan is like a son to me, so I did not want to hurt him. Most of the rabbis did not care about Eitan. They did not care about my mother. They did not respect her decision." But Gutwine believes justice was done. "Mrs. Ortman is in heaven serving as an advocate for Chava before God," he says. BEFORE HE invested over $1 million to import and build a crematorium, Nativ researched the Israeli market. "According to a survey of slightly more than 200 Israeli Jews, mostly secular and a few traditional, 31 percent said they would prefer cremation," said Nativ. "But even if just 5% wanted it I would provide the service, because I believe, as a manager of a funeral home, that I am obligated to provide my customers with a ceremony that gives expression to the deceased's wishes. Cremation fits in with my belief that people should be given the freedom to determine their own destiny." In addition to cremation, Nativ provides other types of alternative burials, such as burial at sea and burial in a casket, which is against Jewish tradition in Israel. "Running a funeral home is more than a profession. It is a calling. It allows me to make a living out of loving kindness and giving. Relatives cope with the mourning process much better when they know their loved one received the funeral arrangement he or she desired. "You do not know how good it makes me feel when family members come up to me after the funeral and tell me, 'That's exactly what he would have wanted.'" So far, more than 30 bodies have been cremated and about 200 people are signed up, ready to be cremated when the time comes. The basic cost is NIS 10,000, including an ambulance that picks up the body. Although non-Jews from the FSU make up a large portion of Nativ's clientele, close to two-thirds are native Israelis or longtime immigrants. Several are Holocaust survivors like Victoria Ortman. "Europeans have a completely different perspective on cremation. For them it has no connection with the Holocaust. "My Israeli customers are secular and highly educated. The FSU immigrants normally do not sign up in advance. They come to me after a sudden death or accident." Nativ's business venture is the first of its kind in Israel's short history. Capitalism brought to the Jewish state what even the most extremist ideologues never dreamed of doing. Even radically secular kibbutzim who raised and ate pork, made bonfires on Yom Kippur and Tisha Be'av and introduced alternative burial ceremonies that broke with Jewish rites, never seriously considered cremation. "The kibbutz movement's revolutionary spirit had its limits," says Muki Tzur, a historian and storyteller of the early kibbutz movement from kibbutz Ein Gev. "Yes, we radically changed the family structure. Yes, we revolutionized society. Yes, we rebelled against rabbinic Judaism. But brit mila and burial were always accepted unquestioningly. Ours was a revolution of building, not destruction." This fundamentally conservative attitude in the kibbutz movement that viewed cremation as taboo Tzur calls "the dialectics of revolution," in which certain limits are internalized. "Leaders of the kibbutz movement had a constant fear that their social experiments would spiral out of control and become nihilistic." The idea of cremation is so foreign in Israel that no laws govern the practice. The only previous cremation in Israel was of executed Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, whose ashes were scattered over the Mediterranean in 1962. "The entire issue of cremation is being examined by the Justice Ministry and the attorney-general," says the Justice Ministry's spokesman. In a state devoid of cremation legislation, Nativ operates his B&L Cremation System N20 series crematorium unregulated. But Nativ says his crematorium follows the strictest regulatory demands available. "In the US and Europe these machines are located near population centers. So people demand they meet extremely stringent criteria." The entire cremation process takes between two and three hours, depending how much the body weighs. As a rule of thumb, about 80 kg. are burned every hour once the crematorium is heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius, the preferred temperature. There are no visible emissions during cremation. How the body is prepared for cremation is decided by loved ones, Nativ says, adding, "I try to give people as much freedom of choice as possible." Some prefer that the body be washed before burial, others opt against it. Some have the body burned in a cardboard casket, which prevents leakage; others prefer cremation without a casket, which is illegal in many states in the US. Before cremation, pacemakers must be removed. After cremation, surgical pins, titanium artificial limbs, hip joints, and bridge work are collected and discarded. The remains or "cremains," which are bones and calcium deposits weighing about 3 kg., are vacuumed or swept from the floor of the crematorium, ground to a consistent size and placed in an urn. The ashes of most Israelis who have been cremated were scattered in the Mediterranean sea, says Nativ. However, some choose to be scattered in a garden or in their back yard. Others bury them in a cemetery. In the US, disposing of the deceased's ashes is carefully regulated. In many states it is prohibited to bury the remains, even cremains, of a dead person in one's back yard. The ashes can also be held in an urn in the house. FORMER ASHKENAZI Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, says cremation is diametrically opposed to Judaism. "Several sources prohibit the practice," says Lau. "Deuteronomy 21 states, 'if a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain on the tree but you shall surely bury him that day.' "Even a criminal worthy of capital punishment deserves a quick burial," points out the former chief rabbi. "From here our sages learned the mitzva of burial. "In addition, the Torah teaches that even the high priest, who is forbidden to come into contact with the dead - even one of his own relatives - may bury a Jew if there is no one else capable of performing the burial. And this is true even on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Even if it means that the high priest will be unable to perform the sacrifices in the Temple as a result of being defiled by the dead body. If any other type of disposition besides burial were possible, the Torah would have mentioned it. "Man was created in the image of God. Therefore his body must be treated with respect. To burn it is a desecration of God's image. "As it says in Genesis, 'in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it were you taken, for dust you are and to the dust shall you return.' Burial marks an end to the cycle of life." Lau also opposes cremation for non-Jewish Israelis. "This is not just another nation like all the others. This is a Jewish state. Jewish heritage and history should be respected for the sake of maintaining the special qualities of this state, even if it means infringing on the rights of the individual. Being an Israeli citizen does not only mean that you are entitled to certain rights, it means you have certain obligations also." Lau says notwithstanding halacha, the crematorium is also a symbol of the Holocaust. "There are hundreds of Jews in Israel with numbers on their arms who quietly bear horrible memories. Now, I believe it is legitimate to pursue a money-making venture, but not if it hurts the feelings of these Jews." Asked what he thinks of the fact that several customers of Aley Shalechet, like Ortman, are Holocaust survivors, Lau replies, "It is an interesting case of suppression that is in need of psychological or psychiatric treatment." QADI ABED El Hakim Samara, a judge in the Shari'a Court in Jaffa, believes anyone who chooses cremation is not in his right mind. "These people are crazy," says Samara. "It is another sign of decadent secular influences. A man must not be allowed the option of cremation. He has no right to this despicable thing. It is a desecration of the body." Asked how Muslim suicide bombers are permitted to blow themselves up, thus burning or mutilating their own bodies and the bodies of others, Samara answers, "If someone burns himself for altruistic reasons, for instance to save someone or for jihad, then he is not punished. And if he does it out of despair he is punished less severely." Samara bases his explanation on the following story in the Sahih Bukhari, a collection of Muhammad's sayings and deeds also known as the Sunnah. "Amongst the people preceding your age, there was a man whom Allah had given a lot of money. While he was on his death-bed, he called his sons and said, 'What type of father have I been to you? They replied, 'You have been a good father.' He said, 'I have never done a single good deed; so when I die, burn me, crush my body, and scatter the resulting ashes on a windy day.' His sons did accordingly, but Allah gathered his particles and asked (him), 'What made you do so?' He replied, 'Fear of you.' So Allah bestowed His mercy upon him (forgave him)." From this story, Samara infers the importance of intention. If the individual who burns or blows up his body has egoistic intentions, he is punished horribly. But if his intention was pure, the sin of bodily desecration is expiated. "And someone who is burned against his will is considered a shahid." Samara says that in Islamic faith, the connection between the soul and the body remains strong even after death. "In the Koran there are cases in which Muhammad speaks to the dead as if they were alive and the dead respond. We believe that the dead body sees, hears and feels. We are careful not to cause the body pain and we ask forgiveness from the body before burial. It is written, 'Better to lean on a burning coal than on a grave.' The soul is in constant motion rising to heaven and dropping back down to the body. "So cremation is considered almost like suicide. Someone who does it cannot be buried in a Muslim cemetery. On the day of judgment, one who asks for cremation will be punished severely." In contrast to Islam and Orthodox Judaism, most Christians permit, although they do not encourage, cremation. The Catholic Church lifted a ban on cremation in the 1960s during the Second Vatican council. However, due to cultural differences, there are widely opposing views on the practice between western Catholicism and the eastern rites. As a result, it is doubtful that any of the approximately 60,000 Arab Catholics living in the Galilee, Nazareth, Haifa, Acre, Jaffa and Jerusalem would opt for cremation. Priest David Burrel, a lecturer in theology and philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, regards cremation with equanimity, while Father Jamal Khader, head of Bethlehem University's theology department and lecturer at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary, Jerusalem, is perturbed by the theological ramifications. Burrel, who is on sabbatical at the Tantur Ecumenical Center in Jerusalem, says that historically Church objection to cremation was a response to materialists who used cremation to refute the idea of resurrection. "The Church fought aggressive materialists who reached the peak of their power in the 19th century," says Burrel dispassionately. "But throughout history the Church allowed mass cremation in times of plague, which proves there was never any real theological basis to their opposition." In contrast to Islam as presented by Qadi Samara, which believes the soul continues to be tied to the body after death, Burrel says that in Catholic theology, death marks the end of the connection between soul and body. "There is a clear understanding that when we view poor dead uncle Jack we are looking at his body, not the uncle Jack we so fondly remember. The soul is in God's hands. "We believe that in the future there will be a link between the body and the soul. But this is understood figuratively. We do not know how it will happen." Burrel's explication of the Catholic stand on cremation is radically different from Khader's, so much so that it is difficult to believe they are theologians of the same church. Father Khader admits that his theological opposition to cremation is based on a cultural bias. "We live among Muslims and Greek Orthodox who view cremation as anathema. It is unheard of in these parts. The pressure for cremation is a western cultural thing." Khader is right. Besides Nativ's crematorium, probably the only other place in the entire Middle East where cremation services are offered, albeit grudgingly, is in the Abu Dhabi Emirate. Two crematoria operate there for the large Hindu community, one in Dubai and one in Sharjah. However, the Muslim state insists that official permission be given for each cremation, which creates delays and hardship for the Hindus. Also, Hindus who die outside Dubai and Sharjah are not entitled to cremation, rather their bodies must be repatriated. Khader, who defines himself as a Palestinian, allows his Middle-Eastern cultural sensibilities to influence his theological perspective. When Khader emphasizes Catholic theological proofs against cremation, he is drawing the figurative target after shooting the arrow. "The Catholic's body is sanctified by baptism," argues Khader. "Therefore, it is disrespectful to actively destroy the body." Khader points to the case of Gianni Versace, the Catholic Italian designer who was gunned down outside his Miami Beach home, whose funeral service in Milan's Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral did not include a funeral mass because, according to some Roman Catholics, mass can only take place before cremation. "In order to have mass there must be a body. Someone who cremates the body is sending a message that he does not believe in life after death. "Besides, it is important to have a tangible burial place where the deceased can be visited. This provides the loved ones with an opportunity to pray at the graveside. Cremation means the deceased's memory has been wiped from the face of the earth, never to be remembered." The Greek Orthodox, the second-largest Christian community in Israel with about 50,000 Arab members, opposes cremation. Archbishop Aristorchus, the secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, says cremation seems to contradict belief in the resurrection of the body. But in addition, Christianity teaches that the body, as the temple of the soul, should be respected. "The love and veneration for the body of Jesus displayed by the disciples after Jesus's passion and death should be our model. The disciples venerated his body as much after death as before. This shows that the body is not just a husk that can be discarded and burnt and ground into powder and packaged." Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee's international director of interreligious affairs, expresses a similar idea in the name of Judaism. "The body is the shell in which the holy soul resides. It has sanctity just as - mutatis mutandis - phylactery straps have sanctity. The actual sanctity is in the scroll while the straps are secondary. One must bury holy books even if the name of God is not written on them. So too the body should be buried. Cremation is considered an act of disrespect." THE GREEK Orthodox Church's opposition to cremation has caused a tremendous controversy in Greece. There is a dearth of open spaces in Athens that can be used for new cemeteries. As a result, about 80% of approximately 30 existing cemeteries in the area are full. Bereaved relatives are forced to delay funerals for weeks. Part of the problem is that bodies are not decomposing fast enough. According to Greek burial tradition, the body of the deceased is buried for three years. The grave is then dug up. If the body has fully decomposed the remains are removed. The bones are washed in lime, oiled and placed in an ossuary. However, better nutrition and traces of medications that remain in the body at the time of death are delaying the decomposition process. Also, in many graveyards the soil is saturated from previous use, further delaying decomposition. Groups such as the Committee for the Progress of Cremation in Greece are pushing for legalization of cremation. But the Greek Church, which enjoys political clout, is fighting it. Ecclesiastical sources in the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem explain that since the inception of modern Greece in the early part of the 19th century, the Orthodox Church has viewed itself as the custodian of Greek ethnic identity and the guardian of national interests. In this capacity the church sees itself as the protector of the Greek way of life from the encroachments of Western secularism. In Israel, like in Greece, Israelis are dying too fast for existing burial grounds to accommodate them, according to Meir Spiegler, director of the religious affairs department in the Prime Minister's Office. "There is a real shortage problem, especially near city centers." Spiegler says that new directives by the Israel Lands Administration dictate that all new land reserves set aside for burial must be planned in a way that between 40% and 50% of the land holds a minimum of 750 bodies per dunam. In contrast, conventional burial practice allows for only about 250 bodies per dunam. In order to meet the new criteria, cemeteries are introducing new, creative burial methods such as the multi-tier NIS 55 million project in Tel Aviv Hayarkon cemetery, known as "saturated burial" or "high density" burial. Hananya Shachor, manager of Jerusalem's largest burial society, says a variety of methods are used to maximize land reserves. "At Har Hamenuhot cemetery, a few different methods are used depending on topography. If there are steep inclines, we can dig into the side and create a cave with niches or terrace the graves along the slope. Where the land is flat, we can dig two graves one on top of the other. We can also build aboveground tiers." However, high rise or underground solutions can be expensive. "We are looking for the cheapest and most efficient method possible," says Spiegler. Spiegler rejects cremation as an option. "We are still waiting to hear from the Justice Ministry and the attorney-general whether cremation is legal. I know the chief rabbis oppose it. It is a practice that is completely foreign to most Israelis." However, Nativ claims Speigler's generalization is false. "The huge wave of immigrants from the FSU has brought with it new sensibilities. Also, there are many veteran European immigrants for whom cremation is not a foreign idea." Shimon Navon, who heads the National Insurance Institute's Retired and Deceased Department, says 38,500 Israeli citizens die annually. Every citizen, regardless of religion, is entitled to a free burial, on condition the burial is in the city of residence and the plot is chosen by the cemetery director. The NII spends NIS 170 million annually to bury Israelis. Citizens who choose cremation must pay out of pocket. "We do not recognize cremation as a legitimate type of burial," says Navon. "Traditional burial is the only option mentioned in our criteria," says Navon. "If cremation is recognized we would have to amend all of our directives." Nativ is convinced that the issue of cremation is pivotal for the future of the State of Israel. "The question is whether we want this state to be controlled by a religious establishment that is completely out of touch with Israeli culture, with the people who produce TV, theater, art - or do we want a state that respects the rights of the individual? This [cremation] is part of a much larger cultural war." DEEP DOWN, Zaka's Gutwine is convinced, most Israelis want a Jewish funeral. "This summer we received a call from a secular man in Herzliya who asked us to help him. His mother, a Holocaust survivor, was on vacation at a spa in Baden-Baden. It was a holiday arrangement with the German government as part of Holocaust reparations. Apparently, his mother died and it took a few days to discover her body in her bungalow. "Due to the hot weather, she was already in a state of advanced decomposition. According to German law she had to be cremated. But Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, one of the founders of Zaka, who has connections in the German government, managed to get the body released and shipped back to Israel where she was buried. "The woman's son and daughter-in-law, both of them completely irreligious, were so thankful to us for taking care of her and giving her the respect she deserved. I have dozens of stories like that." Amalia Elenbaas, 53, a special education teacher from the Jerusalem area, explains why she has chosen cremation. "I was not sanctified in my lifetime so my grave won't be sanctified either. The earth should be reserved for the living, not wasted on the dead. I believe that there is nothing after death. There is a special symbiosis between the body and soul that is terminated when someone dies. So, after I donate to medicine every useful part of my body for the sake of the living, Aley Shalechet will come and cremate what's left." Samuel, 38, who grew up secular but embraced Orthodox Judaism at the age of 20, says his mother requested cremation in her will. "She told me she could not stand the thought of worms eating her body. She also said she did not want her body lying around for years after she died. She was always a loner. She did not like being around people too much. I think in a way she felt the same way about being around other dead people in a cemetery." Samuel's mother passed away in La Jolla, California, on August 8, after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. But Samuel's predicament was different from Chava Ortman's. Whereas Ortman wanted to be faithful to her mother's will in a hostile environment of haredi Judaism, Samuel wanted to be faithful to Orthodox Judaism in Southern California, where cremation is chosen by 42% of the inhabitants. "I am an only child so I was the sole executor of her trust. As a religious Jew I was forbidden to honor her desire for cremation. I tried to give her the most honorable burial possible. I even chose a plot at the far edge of the cemetery so she would have as much privacy as possible. "But I could not invite her friends because I was afraid someone who knew about her will would try to intervene. I hope she forgives me."


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