Many years ago, my father’s sister died suddenly. When I asked my father if I could go to the funeral, he said ‘no’ – there wouldn’t be one. Instead, her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean, as she had requested. Like all my relatives, I grew up without much Jewish knowledge. I didn’t know what a Jewish burial was supposed to be, and knew even less about cremation. Yet, somehow, I was unsettled – especially when my father mentioned he might do the same thing. While I couldn’t explain my uneasiness, something just didn’t sit right.
Another aunt, my mother’s sister, had had a hard life. She suffered as a child and, despite having a wonderful marriage for nearly fifty years, struggled her entire life to raise a special-needs child. Last year, she became ill and confided in me her plans for cremation. My aunt was very sensitive to the environment. While she never researched the subject, I believe she felt (erroneously) that cremation was a better eco-choice than burial. She was cremated and her ashes were strewn across the Californian Redwood forest. To this day, many of her relatives are saddened that we will never be able to "visit" her place of rest.
Around the same time, another relative of mine passed away. My eighty-year old uncle died alone in his trailer. A broken man financially, his final words to his grandsons were to be good boys. While he sensed it wasn’t the Jewish way, my uncle knew little of Judaism, and he had indicated to his children that his body should be cremated in order to save money. His children were not happy about the prospect, but followed his wishes and sent the body to the crematorium. When they realized that the process was neither quick nor clean, they felt uneasy. When they were told that the crematorium intended to cut out his hip and pacemaker so as not to damage the cremation equipment, the family was shocked and distraught. None of them wanted to do a cremation. They knew it wasn’t the Jewish way, but didn’t know what to do. For more than two weeks his body lay in the cold crematorium.
I realized that I needed to get involved. I knew from experience that cremations can leave some families empty, angry and with a lack of closure. I prayed that the cremation shouldn’t happen. I sponsored Mishnah study in his merit. I talked with my cousins, and explained the benefits of a Jewish burial. With a little guidance and a little financial help, they decided to give their father a Jewish burial. His body was carefully brought to a Jewish funeral home. A guardian (shomer) was assigned to pray and watch over him until burial. A sense of peace pervaded the family. He was lovingly buried. A month later, a headstone was put in place. Various members of the family go to visit his resting place from time to time. They continuously express to me how happy they are with their decision. He is at peace – and so are they.