Jewish cemeteries ponder future as cremations rise, burials decline

Leaders of local Jewish cemeteries, funeral homes and a monument company meet monthly at Kohn’s Kosher Deli to discuss their industry. (From left) Dennis Hrubes (Berger Memorial Chapel); Barry Needle (United Cemetery Association; Jim Singman (Beth Hamadrosh Hagodol Cemetery); Anita Feigenbaum (Chesed Shel Emeth Society); Donald Meissner, (New Mount Sinai Cemetery); and Jonathan Usprich (Rosenbloom Monument). Photo: Eric Berger 

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Larry Cohen once heard from an employee at his restaurant, Webster Bar and Grill, that he was having trouble getting to work in Webster Groves. So Cohen gave him “a beater of a car that he bought and was planning to restore,” Cohen’s son Steve said.

 Another time, Larry Cohen, a former Marine, gave away an old motorcycle.

“My dad wasn’t a material guy,” his son said. He preferred “life’s simple pleasures.”

That attitude extended to his wishes about the end of his life. He died Oct. 11.

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Cohen, a former member and active volunteer at Congregation Shaare Emeth, was cremated. Instead of a funeral, his sons organized a happy hour with friends at a bar in California. 

The elder Cohen wanted to be cremated, in part, because “of the practicality of it. It was something that he was able to do and prepay for, so he wasn’t leaving my brother and I with a burden or a bill.”

An increasing number of Jews in recent decades have decided to be cremated, according to rabbis, cemetery directors and writers who have studied the issue.

Those choices have played a role in a significant decrease in the number of burials at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, according to data provided by the cemetery directors. 

From 1986 (the earliest year for which they had a count) to 1990, there was an average of 529 burials each year at sevenlocal Jewish cemeteries. From 2013 to 2017, there was an average of 377. 

As burials at local Jewish cemeteries declined during those years, the number of Jews in St. Louis has increased from 53,500 in 1981 to 61,100 in 2014, according to Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ community demographic study. 

“We used to have a call here or there from someone who was interested in prearranging, asking about cremation,” said Anita Feigenbaum, executive director of the Chesed Shel Emeth Society, which manages three local Jewish cemeteries. “Now, it’s every single call that I receive, someone in the family is going to be cremated, so that has significantly impacted our cemeteries.”

Trend in cremation among Jews rising nationwide

St. Louis is not alone in seeing a decrease in burials at Jewish cemeteries. Doron Kornbluth, author of “Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View,” studied the trend and told The Times of Israel in 2012 that he estimated one-third of American Jews choose  cremation. The Forward reported in 2012 that while more American Jews are opting for cremations, the numbers in various communities generally stayed below 15 percent.

Cremations also have increased among people of other religions or no religion. The National Funeral Directors Association reported that in 2016, for the first time, more than half of Americans were cremated. It forecasts that the number will surpass 63 percent by 2025. 

“People will use money as a motivator, but I think also we are in an Amazon Prime world, and cremations are very convenient,” Jonathan Usprich, a sales associate with Rosenbloom Monument in St. Louis, said of the reasoning behind choosing cremation. 

Usprich said it takes the company three to five months to shape and carve a headstone. When he started 12 years ago, that wasn’t an issue. Now people want it done right away. With cremation, he said, “you just call the funeral homes and then you go pick up a package afterward.” 

The increase in cremation may have a larger impact on Orthodox cemeteries such as Chesed Shel Emeth, which do not accept cremated remains, than on local Reform and Conservative cemeteries, which do.

“You are supposed to bury in b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God,” said Feigenbaum, of Chesed Shel Emeth. “We allhave the image of God in us and, when you cremate, you destroy it, so we do not accept cremations.”

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, will not officiate at funerals for people who have been cremated. But he said the issue hasn’t come up at his congregation.

“While understanding what might lead individuals to make such a choice and not castigating any given choice that someone made for a relative or themselves, that would be very strongly against Jewish law and tradition,” he said. 

Despite the different views on cremation, people in the local Jewish funeral industry work together — they meet once a month at Kohn’s Kosher Deli — and Feigenbaum and directors of other Orthodox cemeteries will refer people to cemeteries that do accept cremated remains. The board of Beth Shalom Cemetery, which is located on the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery grounds in Chesterfield but is a separate legal entity, recently formed a committee to consider accepting Jews’ ashes for burial.

New Mount Sinai Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery started in the 19th century by local Reform congregations, has a mausoleum for cremated remains. 

“By the time it gets to us, to the cemetery, people have made their choices,” said Donald Meissner, the cemetery’s executive director. “They have decided what they are going to do, and we are here to help them through a difficult time and get through these end of life issues.”

Rabbi James Bennett of Shaare Emeth also is supportive of people’s end of life decisions, whether that means traditional burial or cremation. His parents and paternal grandparents were cremated. And his opinion, after studying Jewish law, is that  “there is no clear, halachic, textual proof that cremation is not permissible.”

“I have a lot of personal, emotional and familial experience with cremation, and I think that’s a very large contributing factor to my own feelings of support for the personal choice of cremation by Jews who opt to do so,” he said. 

Bennett said he would like his remains to be buried but has not decided whether he would like to be cremated. 

“I’m not an advocate for cremation,” he said. “I’m not out there promoting it.”

Bennett estimates that the number of funerals he does for people who have been cremated in recent years has increased. He said he has not studied the numbers but was surprised to hear that the number of funerals at Jewish cemeteries has decreased because he felt that he and the other Shaare Emeth rabbis were still doing the same amount each year. 

Accommodating the needs of the community

Some people do not bring the ashes to cemeteries. Steve Cohen has his father’s ashes at his home in Phoenix. He and his brother, Brian, plan to spread them at the Parkway North High School football field, at their mother’s home in Creve Coeur and in the Pacific Ocean, among other places.

“He wanted to be everywhere, all the time, so you can always feel [his] presence,” Steve said. 

Cremation is not the only reason for the decline in burials at Jewish cemeteries. Barry Needle, executive director of the United Cemetery Association, manages a Conservative, an Orthodox and a Reform cemetery. He cites the “Sun Belt  factor”: Jews are moving to warmer parts of the country and are  being buried there. 

Whatever the reason, the decrease in burials means that cemetery associations could have less money for upkeep. 

“We rely on sales because we have labor that’s involved and we have to be able to be a working cemetery, so prearrangements are important,” Feigenbaum said. “If no one is going to buy, then that’s going to be a problem.” 

Jim Singman, executive director of Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery, an Orthodox cemetery, said the decrease in the number of Jewish burials is not cause for panic, but “it’s something you have to monitor. Trends are everything in our industry.” 

And there could also be an increase in the number of Jewish burials because of the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, so nicknamed because of the large number of births in the two decades following World War II.

“There is a very good chance you will see a spike in the number of Jewish burials in the next five, 10, 15 years,” said Craig Roth, vice president of Rindskopf-Roth Funeral Chapel.

Still, Feigenbaum said, Beth Shalom, which was formed in 2011 to serve Jews who were not converted by Orthodox rabbis, is considering accepting cremated remains in response to the trend. 

“Beth Shalom is looking at what the needs of the community are and how we can accommodate them,” she said.