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Changing Burial Patterns Among Reform Jews at the Dawn of the 21st Century

Rabbi Jordan M. Parr

Jordan M. Parr is the rabbi of Congregation Children of Israel, a Reform Jewish congregation in Augusta, Georgia.

The Reform Jewish community has experienced dramatic changes in its burial practices since I entered the rabbinate fourteen years ago. The shift to more traditional Jewish practices, coupled with the increasing rate of interfaith marriage in the Reform Jewish community, poses distinct challenges for the funeral director. An awareness of the changes within my faith community will enable the funeral director, especially in a city where there is no Jewish-oriented funeral home, to serve his/her clients more effectively, both in the pre-planning and funeral stages of service.

Please note that these changes are specific to Reform Jewish practice and may not apply to Conservative or Orthodox Jews. Consult a local rabbi for specifics as customs vary from one city to the next.

  • Taharah as an option

Taharah is the Jewish practice of ritually washing a body with water and dressing it in a white linen shroud prior to placing the body into a wooden casket. As men or women pour water over a body, they recite certain prayers in honor of the deceased, prayers that implore God to receive this person in love.

The formal name for such a group of Jews, acting as they are out of sense of mitzvah (religious obligation) is a chevre kedisha, a holy burial society. Increasingly, Reform Jews are turning to a chevre kedisha, whether in the larger community or within Reform congregations, to do taharah. In my congregation, for example, we will be launching our own chevre kedisha this summer so that we might perform this holy service for our members.

The funeral director, when presented with such a request, needs to realize that these specialized needs (e.g., shrouds, a prayer shawl and cap, soil from Israel) are indeed readily available. The most difficult aspect of this whole procedure is the ability to secure a room in which to perform this activity as a lot of water is used and a group of men or women will be in a private area of the funeral home for a lengthy period of time. The funeral home that can provide such a service often becomes the exclusive funeral home for the local Jewish community.

  • The wooden (kosher) casket

In the past, Reform Jews often would purchase metal caskets – or wooden caskets with a significant amount of metal ornamentation. Today, it is far more common for Reform Jews to be buried in a wooden casket designed in accordance with Jewish practice. This is the so-called "kosher" (proper) casket. Reform Jews are choosing this option due to both an increase in awareness of traditional practices and due to a sense that a metal casket is an extravagance.

The funeral director needs to stock several kosher caskets, preferably in a separate area of a casket room, so that a Jewish family might have a selection of appropriate caskets from which to choose. A good rule of thumb is to order caskets with the six-pointed Star of David placed on the top of the casket as they will invariably be kosher.

  • Increase in graveside services

Reform Jews are opting for simplicity in their burial services. It is often logistically easier – and more economical – to perform the entire service at the graveside. Many rabbis also prefer graveside services as these ease their time pressures, often eliminating up to an hour of travel time in procession.

  • Lack of flowers at the chapel/cemetery

Traditionally, Jews do not have flowers present at a funeral. The lack of flowers emphasizes the starkness of death – as well as show that everyone is ultimately equal in death. The previous practice of strewing a casket with a spray of roses, for example, is rapidly fading away. My advice to families is to discourage the sending of flowers; I emphasize the giving of a cash donation in memory of a loved one or the sending of a meal to the home of bereavement.

  • Lowering of the casket and the shoveling of dirt

Reform Jews used to walk away from the grave while the casket was still above ground. In the last decade, almost every casket is now lowered into the ground – and dirt shoveled over the top of the casket by the family and other mourners. This action is the final act of honor; we ourselves cover the graves of our loved one. Many Jews find this ritual cathartic; it emphasizes the finality of death.

  • Increase in shivah (mourning) rituals at home

While technically not a part of the funeral service, many families are now choosing to hold home services during the week following internment. These families often look to the funeral director to provide items such as the 7-day memorial (shivah) candle, condolence books and extra folding chairs.

On the other hand, we are also seeing these somewhat contradictory changes in the Reform movement as well:

  • Increase in requests to be organ donors

All branches of Judaism encourage their members to register as organ donors. The traditional Jewish prohibition against mutilating a body after death (which is why Jews don’t embalm) is lifted if the harvesting of organs and tissue can save other lives. The necessity of organ donation is a high educational priority among Reform Jews at this time.

  • Donation of bodies to science

While Jews traditionally do not allow autopsies, we are seeing an increase in the donation of Jewish bodies for scientific research. It is important to note that each rabbi will have a different opinion on the permissibility of whole body donation. Again, if it can be determined that a whole body donation is done in the spirit of saving a life, it would (in my opinion) be acceptable.

  • Cremation

Cremation is considered mutilation and is strongly discouraged within Judaism. The Jewish experience during the Holocaust, when literally millions of Jewish bodies were burned in crematoria as a final act of degradation, only emphasizes just how strongly we discourage cremation.

Yet, our congregants are increasingly turning to cremation as an alternative to burial – and many rabbis are condoning the practice. It is important, however, to realize that families need a place for their loved ones – either in the ground or in a mausoleum. I strongly recommend such a practice; scattering a loved one’s ashes into the ocean may be a beautiful gesture at the moment; however there will be no place of memory for future generations.

  • The increase in interfaith marriages

This important demographical change within the Jewish community is leading to requests by these couples to be buried together. Often, these requests conflict with the established rules of the local Jewish congregation and/or cemetery, which often prohibit non-Jews from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. This will prove to be a most contentious issue in coming years, as the interfaith population is skewed towards the aging baby boomers and their growing children – who are intermarrying at a rate of about 50%. If for no other reason, a discussion with local rabbis and Jewish cemeteries is essential so that burial policies are clearly understood in the Jewish community and necessary accommodations can be made.

  • The acknowledgement by rabbis of the necessity to pre-plan one’s funeral.

All of the above points can be covered in pre-planning sessions. Rabbis of all viewpoints will support the efforts of funeral homes to conduct pre-planning sessions with Jews. The burden of planning and paying for a funeral should not fall upon grieving survivors at the height of their grief.

When all is said and done, the changing burial patterns of the Reform Jewish community, the largest community of faith within the North American Jewish world, present challenges and opportunities for the funeral home director. It is my hope that, armed with an awareness of these changing patterns, the local funeral director will be able to serve his/her local Jewish community more effectively.

What To Ask When Planning a Jewish Funeral

  1. To which local congregation does the person/couple belong? If they answer that they belong to a Reform congregation, you will proceed differently regarding burial than if they answer Conservative or Orthodox. If they are not affiliated, assume that they will request a Reform Rabbi at the appropriate time.
  2. Are both husband and wife Jewish? If you are speaking with an interfaith couple, it is critical to know the rules of the local Jewish cemetery, namely if they allow burial of non-Jews within the property.
  3. Does the person/couple desire Taharah (ritual washing of the body)? Traditionally, Jewish men or women wash and dress the body in a ritualistic manner prior to placing the body in a casket. An increasing number of Reform Jews desire this practice. Check with your local rabbi to determine if there is a Chevre Kedisha (a Jewish burial society) that performs these rituals.
  4. Does the person/couple desire a "Kosher" (Jewish) casket? You can be assertive at this point. Frankly, most Jews evade any discussion of death in the synagogue; you will be doing the person/couple a service by educating them about these Jewish rituals.
  5. Ask about organ donation. While technically not within the purview of the funeral director, organ donation is vitally important today. Rabbis of all streams agree, without exception, that Jews should actively seek to become potential organ donors and sign donor cards. Funeral directors should have these cards available at pre-planning sessions so that the person/couple can sign these cards as part of their funeral arrangements.