07 December 2009

Eluding Words Like Delete or Burnt

In our increasingly digitized world, I suppose it's no surprise these days that more and more people are opting for cremation of the dead. It makes sense. The dissipation of matter--verbal, video or virtual--into the smallest of component parts; the corollary relationship between the fire of disintegration and the heat of a laptop battery; even the very act of absence itself: yes to cremation and not burial? Sign here. End of conversation? Press delete.


Just like that.

I don't like it.

My friend Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet, wrote today after having to listen to me complain about it. "Honestly, it's not the cause I'd take up, if I were you," she said. "Let's work on this world. Olam Ha'bah has to be someone else's problem." In the spirit of Hanukah, I accused her of being an Epircurean. I should have also pointed out that some of the Epicureans' most important papyri were found among the "charred" remains of Herculaneum--how ironic!

Cremation as a new Jewish response to death and the body has the feeling of a force to be reckoned with. There are many reasons for this.

1. Increasingly mobile populations no longer have a relationship to particular places as home--whether that home be temporal and of this world or eternal and of the next.

2. The growing awareness of the "environment" and an inherited sense that burial is a waste of useful land.

3. The vague relationship of contemporary spiritual culture to Buddhist and Hindu notions of the body's non-essential, ephemeral nature and the fact that these spiritual ideas are so enmeshed with our popular culture that they take precedence over Judaism's mandated Law against such practice.

4. Cost. I dare say, the great monkey on the back of Jewish life--going back at least 40 years--is the mistaken (and irresponsible) notion that being Jewish should be free. And if not free, than cheaper than it is. So, by that measure, it's cheaper to burn than to bury.

This is not good for the Jews.

Everything about burial, from my experience as a rabbi thus far, surpasses the cremation process. Mourning itself, we might say, gets a better leg up when the body goes six feet down, when there is a direct engagement with death and burial.

1. Burial takes longer than cremation, proving that death and its attendant responsibilities, mundane and earthly as they are, cannot and will not be rushed. It is a process.

2. Death is related to place: earth, six feet below (a similar address or valence for us all), with a stone and a name and a date and, if we're lucky, an epitaph, pithy or otherwise, links us, engraved in stone like the very word of God on the Tablets, to one another on the space/time continuum.

3. Death is related to history: there is a narrative to the experience; there are whole cemetery sections dedicated to homelands once claimed, now forgotten, yet recorded, in stone, in the countless gates of Landsmanschaften throughout Jewish cemeteries across the world. (During one recent trip to a cemetery in Queens I was told that there over 1300 Jewish burial societies represented in that one place. Remarkable!) Our very names reflect our origins. Where else are they written in stone?

4. Burial is more humble. It seems like it's not. I hear the voice that says "But you take up space! You erect monuments!" I hear you. But to cremation I'd say, "You burn! Such a destroyer of life!?"

There is a quietude to burial. A humbling. A "laying to rest" that has an inherent beauty and slowing of time--especially when one contemplates the decay of the body in the cold, dark ground. It's true: the decay is a frightful thought. Disturbing, depressing, even morose. But on the other hand, it's natural, liberating, and slow.

Slow enough to question the life, its structure and meaning. And the man or woman or boy or girl who occupied its form. And like a season that arrives not quite when we're ready, so too does death march into our lives at its own pace, never really controlled by us; only sometimes managed; barely understood but if at all, with patience and time.

Which is as it should be. After all, it's the end, and the start of something else.

Eluding words like "delete" or "burnt."


Amanda said...

As someone who has always leaned towards cremation, you raise points I have not considered and I feel I need to reconsider my thoughts on this.

Ben said...

Not to divert an important discussion, but I think people should choose either but certainly choose something. The nicest thing you can do for your loved ones is to make your decisions clear when you are healthy, whatever they are.

Andy Bachman said...

Well, we can certainly agree that people should choose at least ONE way to dispose of a body. The third choice--open air decomposition--is just too damn ghastly to consider.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the point of this post.
I wonder about the comment re: the "notion that being Jewish should be. . . cheaper than it is." Digressing from your main point, I'd be interested in suggestions about how to keep up with the "cost" of being Jewish. My spouse is out of work. Synagogue membership dues and the cost of kosher meat are exorbitant and intimidating (and already commited to). It's hard to pay the mortgage. Perhaps I'm alone in this, but if you think I might not be, how would you suggest families juggle and prioritize these and related commitments?
Thanks so much.
A Loyal Reader

Hineni said...

One more point --

To sanction cremation is to forget Auschwitz.

While I would not say that Reform rabbis should not officiate at a funeral involving cremation, I do think they should feel obligated to "play the Auschwitz card" in talking to families -- and to an ongoing process of congregational education.

And maybe you should offer your blog post to Tablet!