Fighting for Jewish Funerals
A Pennsylvania rabbi, backed by a local imam, engages in a battle for full control over religious burials
Similar objections to the role and function of the funeral directors have been voiced within Pittsburgh’s Muslim community. AbduSemih Tadese, the imam of the Pittsburgh Islamic Center, is openly backing Wasserman against the Funeral Board. In my conversation with him, the imam echoed the point made by the rabbi about the additional burdens the funeral directors place upon vulnerable, grieving families.
“If a Jew or a Muslim dies today, they have to be buried within 24 hours,” Tadese told me. “If you have to deal with the funeral directors, the burial might not take place for two days, three days, sometimes even a week.” Moreover, some of the requirements of the Funeral Board, like the embalming of bodies being transported to other destinations for burial, are expressly forbidden by Muslim and Jewish religious law. “If a Jew is to be transferred to Israel for burial, or if a Muslim does the same in a Muslim country, asking us to perform an embalmment is a violation of our religious rights,” Tadese said.
By way of illustration, Tadese related a disturbing story that followed the death, last month, of one of the Islamic Center’s members. “The family was unable to bury him, so it was our religious duty to do so,” he said. “We had to raise almost $7,000 in order for the funeral home to release the body for burial. The family was sitting in my office crying, because the death took place on a Friday and we couldn’t bury him until Monday.”
Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State, who answers questions on behalf of the Funeral Board, told me he had no knowledge of this particular episode, but he did stress that “a funeral director cannot refuse to release a body because payment is not made at that time, so if that’s what happened, a complaint could be filed.”
Ruman emphasized that the funeral directors perform an essential public service. “It’s about protecting the consumer—that goes whether it’s the Medical Board, whether it’s an architectural license, or whether it’s funeral directors.”
With that in mind, I asked Rabbi Wasserman whether he might circumvent the conflict by becoming a licensed funeral director himself. “No,” he answered, since obtaining a license requires the study of embalmment, and “for Jews, that’s a desecration of the dead.” More fundamentally, he rejects the principle of state licensing for the performance of religious duties: “Is the State of Pennsylvania going to tell me how to daven, or how to teach gemarah?”
Indeed, while Wasserman finds the commercial imperatives of the funeral directors distasteful—“as soon as they come in, they start talking about different types of caskets and different types of services”—he is at pains to stress that the core issue at stake is the right of clergy to practice their religious traditions free from state intervention. At the same time, he emphasizes that he will obey any court decision: “We are proud citizens of this country. Whatever the court decides, we will listen, we will follow, we will figure out.”
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