A Burning Issue

As the West Coast director of The National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), headed by Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, Robin Meyerson has no shortage of sagas to share about educating the unaffiliated regarding the importance of kevurah k’halachah. Her volunteer position includes training hospice workers under the auspices of her Rav, Rabbi Ariel Shoshan, and Rabbi Yehoshua Fromowitz of Ahavas Torah: The Scottsdale Torah Center, and Rabbi Moshe Haikins of Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah in Lakewood — among other Rabbanim.

It was hashgachah pratis in Robin Meyerson’s own life that eventually led her to spearhead an anti-cremation campaign to try to prevent the 50 known cremations a day — almost 20,000 cremations of Jews per year — throughout the United States.

“I have about 18 cousins and family members,” begins Robin. “Even though I became religious, I stay in touch with them. Nearly 10 years ago, on Shushan Purim, I called my Aunt Myra, and she asked, ‘Are you calling because you heard the news that Uncle Arnold passed away?’ I said, ‘No; when did that happen?’ He had just passed away, so I asked when the burial was going to be. She said there wasn’t going to be one.”

Robin called her cousins to try to convince them to bury their father. They didn’t know what to do. For two weeks, her uncle was in the crematorium.

“The first great hashgachah was that it didn’t happen fast,” notes Robin. “The second was that they didn’t touch him, because usually in crematoriums they cut out anything that could ruin their ovens like titanium knees or pacemakers. I decided to call Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah in Lakewood to have mishnayos learned in memory of my uncle. I didn’t tell my cousins I was doing this, because I was calling them every other day asking when the burial was going to be and if they would please sign the papers to avert the cremation. They started wavering regarding the cremation because I kept calling.”

In the meantime, Robin called the mortuary and a Jewish cemetery in Las Vegas and told them to be on call just in case her relatives changed their minds.

“Rabbi Moshe Haikins of Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah, had a member of his team learn the mishnayos on Tuesday,” recalls Robin. “Tuesday night, my cousin had a dream in which her father said, ‘Get me out of here; don’t cremate me!’ I didn’t know that she had a dream and she didn’t know until the funeral that I had arranged for the mishnayos; I believe that triggered the dream and that’s what changed her mind. But fast forward; there’s more. I flew to Las Vegas for the funeral and my aunt said to me, ‘This is your calling; G-d is going to repay you.’ It’s the weirdest thing that someone would say to you at a funeral.”

Barely a year later, Robin had a baby at the age of 44. “I didn’t think I’d have any more children at that age,” says Robin. “The baby turned out to be a boy. He was born right on Uncle Arnold’s Shushan Purim yahrtzeit.

“We called my cousins and told them we would name him after their father. When I look at my son, I am reminded that this is my mission from Hashem. It was so unbelievable that I had to tell everybody and anybody that cremation is not the thing to do. I did research, built a website, wrote a book and brochures, and give speeches. Most secular Jewish people just don’t know this is about both the body and the soul, so I work to educate and inform.”

Let the Buyer Beware

Robin certainly has her work cut out for her. With Jewish mortuaries now offering both burial and cremation options, 50% of American Jews, nationwide, are choosing cremation. Of the 50% — a staggering 75% on the West Coast; 25-30% on the East Coast.

“That option confuses everybody,” explains Robin, who tries to prevent several cremations a month. “Jewish cemeteries now offer the Abraham and Sarah mausoleum, but that is not Jewish. We don’t put people in drawers in the mausoleum.

“So, the poor Jewish consumers, emotional and distraught over the deaths of their loved ones — whose funerals were not pre-planned — can’t even think straight. They are given options in a brochure — burial or cremation— and they’re informed that their loved ones’ ashes will be strewn along a memorial garden should they choose cremation.”

Saved

Robin shares case-in-point stories with me. The first is about a baal teshuvah whose father was niftar.

“As with approximately 50% of people, he had no will which specified his last wishes — that’s why it is imperative that everyone have their burial wishes written out,” Robin advises. “When his father died, he and his half-sister from a previous marriage disagreed on what to do. The brother wanted a burial; the sister wanted a cremation. The brother came to me to help resolve their issue. I basically said to the sister, ‘Look, you can always undo a burial, but you cannot undo a cremation.’ For her, that was the clincher. She agreed with the brother, and they buried their parent.”

Robin next shares the case of a 103-year-old culturally Jewish man, a brilliant, as-secular-as-can-be PhD who taught at M.I.T., who was predeceased by his wife and had no children. As he prepared his last wishes in his will, he instructed his religious niece and nephew to do a cremation.

“I spoke to them and gave them a couple of books to read,” relates Robin. “One is called Burial or Cremation? The Jewish View, by Doron Kornbluth, which I helped publish. (I also wrote both its foreword and some of its appendices.) They gave the book to their uncle, and he was kind of waffling on it, saying it sounded interesting but he would still stick with his wishes to be cremated. That is when his niece and nephew came to me for advice. I told them, ‘In the back of the book there is a “Dear Dad” letter. I want you to write a “Dear Uncle” letter and just pour out your hearts about how you love him and care for him, and you can’t bear the thought of cremating him.’ I also told them to mention that he has to do a burial for them — because they are going to be the ones still living and they just wouldn’t be able to handle it. Their heartfelt written letter was able to change their uncle’s mind.”

Then, there was the case of an Israeli who had remarried and was living in America. When he died suddenly, his adult son living in Israel assumed that his father would be buried. However, because cremation was more economical, the Israeli’s second wife decided against burial.

“When the son found out, he called his stepmother,” recalls Robin. “She wouldn’t talk to him, so he asked me to try. When she wouldn’t budge, the son grew desperate and asked me to find him an American lawyer. His father was already in the morgue at the crematorium and the papers were already signed to be cremated. I called the crematorium to find out if it happened already — sometimes, it can take a few days or a few weeks, depending upon how many bodies they have. I got lucky, because they spoke to me; they don’t always.

“It hadn’t happened yet, so I needed an attorney fast,” continues Robin. “Of the four I called, the only one who answered my call — live, rather than recorded — was actually a Kohen. When I asked if he would take the case, he replied, ‘Absolutely. I am taking this on for no money whatsoever. Just tell me what to write in the letter.’ The threatening letter he wrote on legal letterhead that basically said, We want the body to be buried in Israel and if we don’t get it, we are going to press charges, was enough to scare the wife to release the body and have it flown to Israel for burial.”

COVID times present their own set of challenging cases. A young woman institutionalized for mental illness was not allowed any visitors due to the pandemic. When she contracted COVID and passed away, her secular half-brother and half-sister contacted Robin for help.

“They weren’t even allowed to see her one last time to say goodbye,” recalls Robin. “They wanted a proper burial, as opposed to cremation, but they just didn’t know how to go about it. I told them about the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA) in New York, and they greatly appreciated my advice. The burial society came and picked up the body, and she had a proper Jewish burial. Her mother and the rest of her family were able to watch it on Zoom.”

Being a New York resident is not a criterion of the HFBA. Any Jew anywhere, regardless of financial means or religious affiliation, can receive a dignified, traditional Jewish funeral and burial by the HFBA. When Robin advocated for an HFBA burial of a secular Midwestern woman who died suddenly, her failed attempt was devastating.

“The couple hardly had any funds, and the local chevrah kaddisha said the funeral would cost $10,000; another cemetery said it would cost $30,000,” remarks Robin. “The husband said he just didn’t have the money. Cremation seemed the best option. When he contacted me, I encouraged him to do a GoFundMe campaign to hopefully raise the money within 24 hours. I told him I could get the HFBA to help out and it would cost him only about $1,400 to fly the body to New York for the burial. I said I would even donate and help raise the remainder, which wouldn’t be so difficult. At first, he was intrigued. In the end, he chose cremation and dedicated one of the animal cages in her memory at the local zoo — his wife was an animal lover.”

A man who learns in the Partners in Torah program called Robin for advice about his chavrusa who told him he wants to be cremated when he dies because he is claustrophobic.

“I told him, ‘Okay, that’s legit. Go back to your chavrusa and tell him that burial is the natural way of all natural things, and it is way worse to go into an oven.’ It worked.”

Another case that didn’t work involved a Jewish intermarried woman whose teenage paraplegic son died. When deciding between burial and cremation, the parents decided to listen to the niftar’s younger brother. He chose cremation so he could wear his brother’s ashes around his neck in a necklace.

“A Rabbi and I both tried talking to the family,” says Robin. “I suggested burial and keeping a cut lock of his hair, or keeping his favorite sweater to remember him by, instead. In the end, they wouldn’t listen. They felt it was his body that had ruined his quality of life, and they just wanted to burn it. I was devastated; I take these cases very personally.”

Close Calls

Robin has had her share of close calls. A baal teshuvah had many conversations with his secular 95-year-old father about having a proper burial, but the father wanted to donate his body for science. After two years, he still couldn’t convince his father that doing that is completely disrespectful to the body which would be sitting for weeks or months on view and dissected by medical students before being thrown away or cremated.

“When he passed away, the son was completely devastated when the father’s body was donated,” reminisces Robin. “Suddenly, it occurred to him that he never actually read his father’s will. He was surprised to see that it didn’t say anything about that. The idea was all talk. Immediately, the son called me. I was in Israel at the time, davening at the Kosel for his father, not knowing that he had died. They were able to rescue the meis from the institution and he was brought to proper burial.”

While some might find the following story a bit scary, others may find it very moving. A secular man who wanted to give his son a proper bris contacted a Rabbi who was also a mohel. The beautiful ceremony he performed really moved his father, the baby’s grandfather. A few months later, the grandfather died. The son approached the Rabbi and said, “My father was very moved by everything you did at the bris; I am sure he would have been honored to have you say a few words at his memorial service.” When the Rabbi asked when the funeral would be, his son said that his father’s will specified that he wanted to be cremated.

The Rabbi checked with his mentors about the right thing to do. He was told that since the cremation had not occurred yet, he was allowed to officiate at the memorial ceremony. Everyone gathered in the family’s home. When the Rabbi started reciting Tehillim in Hebrew, the living room lights started to flicker. People started getting a little nervous and checked the light switch to see what was going on. Then, when the Rabbi continued to read in Hebrew, the phone rang. When they checked the caller ID, they saw their deceased father’s telephone number. They answered, but there was nobody on the line.

At this point, the Rabbi called the brother and sister aside and asked them to get the will out. After he looked at it, he said, “We are going to do a burial. Is that okay with you?” They both nodded their heads in agreement. The Rabbi continued the memorial service, and there were no more phone calls or flickering lights.

Parting Words

“The soul suffers tremendously when there is a cremation (Zohar),” concludes Robin. “It has peace only when it is buried — that is why we want to hurry up and do the burial. That soul doesn’t want to go through the transition in a slow way.

“It doesn’t matter if you are Orthodox or secular. If you are born a Jew, you should die as a Jew — even if you didn’t have a bris or bar mitzvah or a chuppah,” continues Robin. “We should help each other help our loved ones who just don’t know any better.”

Robin is adamant about not getting paid for what she calls her life’s mission. “Are you kidding? There’s no way I would take money for this — but I would not turn down a donation to pay for a burial, education or my website.”

There is a conversation opener that Robin uses for what she calls her uphill battle: “I bought my plot; did you?”

“Today, bringing up the conversation is perhaps more important than ever,” Robin says. “Ask, ‘What are your wishes, your plans?’ and fill out a burial form. I feel that all the Jewish People should really take care of one another. We can’t sit back and just let 50 Jews a day be cremated.”

Please note: There are various halachos dealing with this complex issue.
A competent Rav should be consulted for guidance.