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Cremation: So What If It’s Heresy?

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In the months before lockdown I was training with a group of volunteers to start a project in the borough for the national Dying Matters organisation. As it happens, we were all ‘old’ and Jewish with a wealth of experience in many different professional fields – not just in the voluntary sector.

The aim was to have someone in the participating doctors’ surgeries one day a week. That someone would be available to talk to patients who had been recognised by GPs as needing conversations about end of life decisions.  Not medical decisions. We were not involved in any area of medical care. Our role would be simply to point clients in the direction of all the literature available concerning making a will, lasting powers of attorney, perhaps the kind of funeral they wanted – the minutiae and possibilities of what they would like to happen. Doctors have no time to talk about these sensitive issues and the volunteers would be filling a much-needed gap. They would initiate difficult conversations. 

Our particular group had training via Jewish Care (although this was not a Jewish Care initiative) and the North London Hospice. We learned a lot from some exceptional professionals working with End of Life. Personally, I have always preferred volunteering on grant panels and being in the background. I have never wanted any ‘face to face’ interaction with clients. After a few weeks, I changed and thought, ‘Yes, I think I can do this.’ 

But of course, I can’t do it and now I will never have the opportunity. The pandemic intervened.  Surgeries became no-go areas and people started dying before their time and in terrible circumstances.  No one to hold their hands, say goodbye or tell someone what their last wishes might have been.

Zoom funerals, Zoom shivas  – an everyday story of lives snuffed out and lonely grieving for so many.   

Dying Matters went to the back of my mind and, I’m ashamed to say, the literature went into the recycling. I couldn’t bear to think about any of it. 

As a non-believer who only wants God to do something in a crisis. (Please, God, just get me out of this and I’ll never complain again – that’s me.) I cannot be doing with much of traditional Judaism at the moment. I love the food and the family and the community but not the religion. I just hope to be a decent human being. I’m thrilled for the many people I know who are deriving huge comfort from synagogue services, meetings, groups, sermons, activities beamed in from the shuls and Facebook groups. They’re just not for me (as a dearly loved friend said, ‘Nah. I’d rather slit my throat with a soup spoon’).

And most definitely not for me is a traditional orthodox burial.  I know, I know, it won’t matter what happens because I won’t really be there. But I have always felt it was religious blackmail to be a member of a synagogue just to have burial fees taken care of. How many dead bodies has anyone seen in northwest London recently? There is also the well-known phrase in burial disagreements over bills, ‘What are you going to do? Dig him/her up?’

I am told you can get a spot in Willesden for £25,000 but that may just be a Jewish joke. Even if it was a bog-off – Buy One Get One Free — I wouldn’t want it. Give me a Rambling Rector (it’s a fast-growing white variety of rose) any day. Perhaps David Austin, the well-known rose breeder could develop a rose bush called Rambling Rabbi and make everyone happy? 

I dread being shipped off to Cheshunt, just off the motorway where no one in my family will be bothered to visit. I don’t blame them. Even a woodland burial seems to be fraught with details and extra costs and is also off the motorway. I have spent the happiest and greatest part of my life a hop and skip away from Hoop Lane. I know halachically it is not ok, but I just want to be scattered locally – maybe have a tree, a rambling rosebush, even a bench. My kids might even come and smell the rose, water the tree, sit on the bench.

I have been to lovely cremations for nonorthodox Jews. Walking around the gardens recently, I was amazed to see so many Jewish names there in the peaceful silence of beautiful tended beds.

My hometown – a lifetime ago – was Manchester. My grandparents, parents, brother and sister are all in different cemeteries and I have never felt much joy in visiting any of them. Surely memories are in one’s heart and not under a block of marble. In Manchester it was the custom to put the letters MHDSRIP on tombstones, meaning, ‘May His or Her Dear Soul Rest in Peace’. Maybe the stonemason couldn’t chisel the Hebrew letters, maybe the families ran out of money. Who knows? I’m not going back there. I really, really don’t want a marble slab calling me a ‘Woman of Worth’ or ‘Much-Loved Wife, Mother, Grandmother’. I’d rather the money involved went to a good cause and a celebration of life.   

And God forbid a million times anyone close to me goes first… I simply cannot face driving to Cheshunt alone on the motorway to visit… I can barely drive on the North Circular.

So that’s how dying matters to me. Am I a terrible Jew? I hope not. I think I’m being practical and caring for those who come after me.

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Sue Fox is a freelance journalist who has been interviewing famous people for the Sunday Times, Times Magazine, and many magazines since she was 18.  She has also been associate producer on TV documentaries and a film archive.
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