Changing attitudes about cremation and non-Jewish spouses are raising new challenges for the century-old Jewish funeral home in Hamilton, Ont.
United Hebrew Memorial Chapel (UHMC) has been burying the city’s Jews since at least 1916, but only according to a strictly Orthodox tradition. That’s a stand that today puts the institution directly in the path of rapidly changing social ideas.
For Dan Levy, UHMC’s president, the challenges of new ideas remain small today, but their impact is being felt, particularly in the demand for cremation as opposed to the in-ground burial that many believe Jewish tradition demands.
In some parts of the United States, cremation now accounts for a third of Jewish funerals, but that’s just not happening at UHMC. “We are an Orthodox funeral home and we simply don’t do cremations,” Levy said.
“We believe the Torah specifically prohibits cremation and allows in-ground burial only. Yes, a large segment of world Jewry interprets the laws differently, but we believe you either adhere to halakhah or your society starts to break down.”
As one measure of the demand for cremation, a report out of St. Louis found that the number of burials in its 11 Jewish cemeteries had fallen from an average of 529 a year between 1986 and 1990, to an average of 377 between 2013 and 2017.
As early as 2012, Doron Kornbluth, author of Cremation or Burial? A Jewish View, studied the trend and told the Times of Israel that he believes approximately one-third of American Jews choose cremation. Meanwhile, the National Funeral Directors Association in the U.S. estimates that more than half of Americans are cremated and forecasts the number will surpass 63 per cent by 2025.
While those trends may cause sleepless nights for some funeral providers, so far they have remained only theoretical problems for the Hamilton chapel where Levy says business has remained steady and families wanting cremation can be referred out to the city’s Reform congregation, Temple Anshe Sholom.
Although the temple permits the burial of cremains in its cemetery, Rabbi Jordan Cohen said he will not officiate at a crematorium service and will do everything he can to convince families to opt for in-ground burial. He will, however, conduct a grave-side service for cremains.
“We are not looking for cremation business or advocating for cremation. I will not have anything to do with the actual cremation,” Cohen said. “I will always do what I can to convince people for burial.”
Another issue troubling the Jewish funeral business is how to care for the ever-growing number of intermarried couples wanting final resting places together. By some counts, that’s as high as a third of all Jewish marriages today.
For those couples, UHMC remains off limits, while the city’s liberal synagogues are open to the new reality. Temple Anshe Sholom welcomes the non-Jewish half of a couple for burial, with the stipulations that non-Jewish clergy cannot officiate in the cemetery and no non-Jewish markers or symbols are permitted.
Beth Jacob, the city’s Conservative shul where Levy is chair of the cemetery committee, is studying how to accommodate non-Jewish spouses.
So far, Levy said, they have not encountered too many issues related to intermarriage, partly because of the relatively small size of Hamilton’s Jewish population – about 5,100.
“We’re somewhat fortunate in Hamilton to be sheltered, we’re not facing many of the challenges that American communities do,” Levy said. “Here, it is very rare that we would have to refer someone out, but we know that eventually the growing number of non-Jewish spouses is going to put pressure on the Jewish cemeteries and on us.”
While its main focus is on Hamilton, Levy said UHMC serves a much broader area, as the major Ontario Jewish funeral institution outside of Toronto. Levy said the chapel works with funeral homes and synagogues from Niagara to Mississauga, Kitchener and Brantford, providing the services demanded by Jewish law, including taharah (ritual washing) and shemirah (ritual guard). Such halakhic requirements are met by the 10 men and 10 women of the local hevrah kadishah (Jewish burial society).
In addition to its 300-seat chapel, UHMC also offers grief counselling, preplanning and benevolent services, which ensure a Jewish burial is available, even if a family can’t pay.
Levy’s family has long had a connection with the hevrah kadishah, going back to the dawn of the 20th century. Levy joined the society in 2001 and has been the UHMC’s president for 12 years. “Now I’m looking for an heir apparent,” he said.
That heir will take over a self-supporting non-profit corporation. The UHMC does not receive money from the Hamilton Jewish Federation’s annual appeal, and that’s something Levy said will continue.
Despite the issues facing the Jewish funeral business, Levy is determined the Hamilton operation “will be here as long as there are Jews in Hamilton.”