Off the Shelf: New York City and cemeteries by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When historians examine how social systems develop, they sometimes find surprising reasons drive societal change. At least, it may seem that way to readers of “Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York” by Allan Amanik (New York University Press). Amanik, an assistant professor of American Jewish history at Brooklyn College, CUNY, is interested in “how family and financial concerns when dealing with death gained equal importance to communal cohesion and other traditional priorities as the city’s funeral industry developed over the centuries.” In simpler terms, while at one time synagogues controlled Jewish cemeteries and limited who could be buried within them, that changed as other groups rose to circumvent synagogue control. Yet, in the end, synagogues retained important ties to the funeral industry.

In the mid-1700s, when Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, as New York City was called at the time, they wanted to bury their dead in Jewish-only cemeteries. While in Europe Jews were not allowed to be buried in Christian cemeteries (there were no secular cemeteries at the time), that was not true in New Amsterdam, which had a common burial ground for all its citizens. Amanik notes that “Jewish separation after death stood out under Dutch rule as a rare and perhaps the only case of a European group not burying in the common group.” The synagogues decided who could be buried in their cemeteries and used that as a means of social control. For example, Jews were expected to be members of the synagogue and not only pay dues, but follow a certain level of ritual and ethical behavior. 

This began to change in the late 1800s as benevolent societies, lodges and social groups began to purchase land that would be used as cemeteries for their own members. While these groups expected their members to pay dues, Jewish ritual observance was not required. As membership in these groups increased, synagogue membership began to decline. The groups – which included B’nai Brith and the Independent Order of the Free Sons of Israel, to name only a few – were greatly influenced by American democratic ideas. They gave funds to sick members, organized funerals and protected widows and orphaned children. While this was an ambitious program, as time passed, these groups were often unable to fulfil the needs of their members. This was partly caused by restrictions in immigration – no new immigrants to take the place of those who died – and the fact that Americanized children did not always want to join these organizations. 

Another change occurred when funeral homes began to offer the same services as synagogues and social groups. By this point in time, New York City no longer allowed burials in Manhattan, and synagogues and other groups purchased land in the countryside. Many of the funeral homes began as transportation services, transporting the deceased and/or his family to the cemetery. Then the homes began to offer more services: Jewish undertakers could prepare the bodies. Funerals could take place in the funeral home, which would also provide a rabbi to perform the service. The big difference was that people didn’t need to affiliate to use their services. The funeral homes were on call as needed. To combat this, synagogues and fraternal organization began to market themselves in a different way: They “assumed new intermediary roles. They championed themselves as brokers between members and chapel and promised to hold undertakers accountable for dissatisfactory service. They also adjusted monetary benefits that had long covered funeral costs and bereavement rituals to now apply to services beyond the parlor purview.” 

Synagogues did become popular again as Jews moved from New York City to the suburbs. This was especially true of families with young children: these families “sought out new forms of community beyond the neighborhoods of their youth.,.. The life-cycle provisions and other social needs that the synagogue offered drove the renaissance, especially amid lacking Jewish infrastructure in new areas of settlement.” An additional impetus was the increasing costs charged by funeral homes, which were criticized in the magazines, newspaper and books. The synagogue defined itself as an organization that would prevent this. However, as the Jewish community moved further into the 20th century, additional changes to the Jewish way of death and burial were already occurring.

“Dust to Dust” does an excellent job showing how the desire for a Jewish burial continues to change as society changes. Although the subject matter was surprisingly interesting, the text is dry as is befitting a scholarly work. Anyone looking for a different take on Jewish American social history should enjoy this work.