Choosing a Jewish Burial

November 2, 2014

6 min read


My sister was having second thoughts about her decision to be cremated.

The first sentence of the Last Will and Testament of my sister, Carol Ruth Ryesky, reads, "I direct that all my legal debts and the expenses of my funeral, including a suitable grave marker, be paid from my general estate as part of the cost of administration as soon after my death as feasible."

This seemingly ordinary provision of the Will reflects and implements one of the most important decisions my sister ever made about her life – and about her death.

Carol had relocated to Florida a few years back. She found the climate there conducive to dealing with her medical conditions, and the condominium apartment she purchased was close to many of her friends. Her relocation also brought about a gradual rethinking of various spiritual issues.

As late as a half-year before her passing, she had stated that she wanted her remains cremated and the ashes scattered on the beach near her home in Florida. Though I made known to her my disapproval of that option, I did not press the issue too hard, knowing that Carol was a very strong-willed woman who had come to do things her own way, and that discussion of the issue would only serve to aggravate both of us.

Cremation is handing Hitler exactly what he wanted.

But following the unveiling of our father's matzevah, tombstone, the subject of our own respective funeral arrangements had come up in conversation, whereupon I had told her that a Jew who chooses cremation is effectively doing the Nazis' work for them, and handing Hitler exactly what he wanted. I sensed some discomfort in her voice and demeanor when I said that to her.

Not long thereafter, she told me that she was weighing the pros and cons of her decision to do the cremation option. She had gone through a few major medical episodes, and obviously was contemplating the eventuality of her own mortality.

A Month before Her Death

In January 2014, my wife and I were in Israel. At 3 AM Israel time, my wife's cell phone rang (my wife, as acting Chair of her hospital department, needed to be available by phone while we were away). It was the Florida hospital where Carol had been admitted in an unresponsive condition. They had found my wife's number on Carol's cell phone, and made contact with us. I authorized the hospital in Florida to administer the appropriate procedures.

Carol did eventually recover from that episode, and from a subsequent hospitalization. During this period she had occasion to mention that she did indeed wish to have a proper Jewish burial.

On the morning of 27 April 2014, at my home on Long Island, I received a telephone call from my cousin in Philadelphia. My mother's telephone call to Carol had gone unanswered and my mother instinctively called the local police in Carol's town. The police in Florida had gone to the apartment and found that Carol had died there.

Our son, who had made aliyah less than a year previously, told us that he intends to stay in Israel, and that we should use what had been his designated burial plot in Philadelphia for Carol. I accordingly arranged for Carol to be transported from Florida to Philadelphia for taharah (purification) and burial, and so she was.

But on 2 April 2014, less than a month before her passing, Carol had executed a new Will, which, as already mentioned, specifically provides for a grave marker, thereby definitively reflecting her desire for proper burial in the ground.

On the day of Carol's burial the sky was grey and overcast. My rabbi from Long Island accompanied my wife and me to Philadelphia to conduct the funeral. It began to rain hard just as we were finishing filling the grave with soil, the timing of which we all saw as the Hand of God, and which gave my mother a modicum of comfort. Carol had been given a proper Jewish burial.


Even before the Holocaust, cremation was antithetical to all Jewish values. Cremating the dead only serves to deprecate the value and sanctity of life. It facilitates the denial of death and the afterlife for the soul. And the benefits touted by advocates of cremation are questionable, including matters of expense, dignity, and environmental impact.

Carol's burial gave her family and friends a level of closure and comfort that could not have been achieved through cremation; indeed, cremation would have further exacerbated some emotional wounds. There is no doubt that having made her decision to be properly buried, Carol removed a great weight from herself in the final month of her life on earth.

But what would have happened had Carol not changed her mind? The medical examiner, satisfied that there had been no foul play involved, did release Carol's remains midday on Sunday 27 April 2014 (and, to the relief of us all, did not see fit to perform an autopsy). Had there been a cremation, Carol would have been transferred immediately to the local funeral establishment and cremated the very next day, which was Monday, 28 April 2014. 28 April 2014 corresponded with 28 Nisan 5774, which happened to be Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. What a cruel irony it would have been had Carol been cremated on that day! This cruel irony would have been exacerbated on Carol's first yahrzeit, 27 Nisan, which will fall on 16 April 2015, and which will be Yom HaShoah 5775.

The decision to have or not to have a proper Jewish burial is more than just a matter of personal preference; it impacts those close to us and, in some ways, resonates throughout the entire world. It is the continuation of a Jewish tradition that dates back to when Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah. And in His own special way, God provides support and backup to people who take the initiative to do the proper thing, whether in making their funeral arrangements or anything else. Carol's decision was amply and conclusively validated.

May the memory of Carol Ruth Ryesky, Bracha bat Aharon, be for a blessing!

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