by Shlomo Horwitz
A rabbi’s unusual argument for convincing a mourner to give his mother a proper Jewish burial.
Karen Marsh* had attended Rabbi Epstein’s programs for many years, and her children had grown up learning about the depth and joy of Judaism from Rabbi Epstein and his talented staff. Karen’s 96-year-old mother had just passed away and she immediately called Rabbi Epstein with the news.
“Karen, I am so sorry about your mom. I’d be happy to help with the funeral and burial arrangements.”
“Thanks, Rabbi. It’s already been handled. Mom was very specific in her will.”
“Great. Where will she be buried?”
Karen cleared her throat. “Mom will be cremated, Rabbi. It’s what she wanted.”
Rabbi Epstein was speechless.
“Karen, are you aware that cremation is against Jewish Law?”
“I know, Rabbi, but there’s nothing to discuss. My brother Bob went over the will with me and it’s crystal clear – Mom wants to be cremated and have her ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean, not far from Bob’s home in San Diego.”
“Karen, it may be that your mom had originally intended to be cremated. But now that she’s passed away, she is with God and has full clarity. She would definitely want to be buried in accordance with Jewish tradition.”
“Rabbi, I agree with you, but my brother Bob would never allow us to violate the terms of the will.”
Rabbi Epstein thought that if the children appreciated the great value of a Jewish burial, perhaps they’d take this into account when paying last respects to their beloved mother who, through no fault of her own, had next to no Jewish education. Bob also had no understanding of Jewish tradition.
“Karen, can you please give me Bob’s cellphone number?”
“You’re going to call him?”
“Look, Rabbi, it’s a total waste of time. Bob made his position very clear. In fact, I mentioned the idea of burial and he told me it’s a non-starter.”
“I’d still like to reach out to him. It can’t hurt, can it?”
Karen gave him her brother’s phone number and later that day Rabbi Epstein gave him a call.
“Hello, this is Bob.”
“Hi, Bob, this is Rabbi Epstein calling from the east coast. I’m your sister Karen’s rabbi and I’ve been close to her family for a number of years. I heard the tragic news about your mom and wanted you to know how sorry I am at your loss.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end.
“Thank you Rabbi for your condolences.”
I know what Mom wanted. She made it clear. Cremation, followed by the scattering of her ashes over the Pacific, near San Diego. Period
Rabbi Epstein cleared his throat. “Bob, I wanted to understand your objection to a traditional Jewish burial. I think it’s what your mother would have – ”
“Let me stop you right there, Rabbi. I know what Mom wanted. She made it clear. Cremation, followed by the scattering of her ashes over the Pacific, near San Diego. Period.”
Bob went on to give the Rabbi a piece of his mind for the next 10 minutes. He was agitated about his mother’s passing and not happy that his sister wanted her to be buried instead of cremated. Rabbi Epstein listened, letting him pour out his heart.
Once Bob was done, the Rabbi said, “Bob, I hear where you’re coming from. Can I take a few moments and explain to you some concepts about Jewish tradition?”
“You can, but I’m not really interested.”
“Fair enough. I won’t take up much of your time. Do you have a soul?”
“Ummm…I guess so.”
“Not exactly,” the Rabbi said. “You are a soul. Your soul has a body! Your soul lives forever. It gets assigned to your body at birth. The body/soul combination is what life is all about. The two work together to create free will, with the goal to bring holiness into the world by elevating everything physical. This explains why we are commanded to take care of our bodies and never do anything to harm or disfigure them. They’re a gift from the Almighty.”
“I follow you, I think,” said Bob.
Rabbi Epstein continued, “Cremation is actually considered a disfigurement of a holy body. It also bypasses the burial process which our mystical sources teach is tremendously important as part of the spiritual purification process the soul undergoes once separated from its body.”
Bob said, “Look, rabbi – I’m not religious, so this means little to me.”
The rabbi considered this for a moment. “Ok, I get that, Bob. I’m curious: will you be saying Kaddish for your mom?”
“I suppose so.”
“That’s great. It’s considered a great merit for the deceased when a child says Kaddish. Jews throughout history have said the initial Kaddish at the gravesite of a loved one. By burying your mom in a Jewish cemetery, you’ll have the chance to visit your mom and say Kaddish at her grave. Not only that, you have a chance for a meaningful family gathering which will evoke special memories of your mom and her impact on the family. Cremation takes away that chance for the family to congregate and pay its respects way into the future.”
Bob didn’t say anything for a while. Rabbi Epstein waited patiently.
“Rabbi,” he sighed, “I appreciate what you’ve been saying. But I’m going through with the cremation. Thanks for your time.”
Rabbi Epstein was crestfallen. He had given it his best shot.
I guess I wasn’t able to convey our traditions properly.
Just then, he had an idea.
“Bob, I understand exactly how you feel. And it makes total sense to me. But I need to tell you…that I’m a little upset with you.”
“Huh?” said Bob. “You’re upset with me?”
“Yup,” said the Rabbi.
Bob was getting irritated. “And why is that?”
“You stole Manny Machado from me.”
There was stunned silence on the other line.
“What?!” said Bob, finally.
“You heard me,” continued Rabbi Epstein, expecting Bob to hang up on him at any moment. “He was the Orioles’ only hope, our favorite third baseman, and now, you guys in San Diego stole him for $300 million for the Padres! So yes, I’m pretty upset with you, Bob!”
Bob was thunderstruck.
“Rabbi,” he said slowly. “You…you’re into baseball?” he asked incredulously.
“I sure am!” The conversation suddenly shifted into an in-depth study of different major league teams and their prospects for a winning season. Twenty minutes went by, in which Bob and the rabbi traded good-natured barbs against each other’s teams. The rabbi easily matched Bob’s deep knowledge of baseball.
“Rabbi,” said Bob, “Now I get why Karen and her family like you so much. If I had a rabbi like you I might be closer to my Judaism today.”
“Thanks Bob, that’s so kind of you. I wish I had the opportunity to get to know you better as well.” Rabbi Epstein realized he had one final chance and decided to go for it.
“Bob, like I said, I’m mad at you about Machado. So I’m offering you a choice: Either give me back Machado, or let me handle the details of your mom’s burial in accordance with Jewish tradition and the ultimate in dignity for her last remains. What’ll it be?”
There was silence on the other line. Rabbi Epstein held his breath.
“Rabbi, I’ve made a decision. We’re keeping Machado. You can bury my mom.”
Hardly believing what he had just heard, Rabbi Epstein said, “Bob, I can live with this choice. I’ll go you one better: I plan to be in San Diego later in the year. Let’s get together over a couple of beers, and toast your mom while we walk along the beach.”
“Sounds good, Rabbi. I appreciate your concern for my family, and look forward to meeting you.”
Karen’s mother was buried two days later, with full adherence to Jewish tradition and the highest standards of respect for the dead.
*This story is true. Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.