The Startling History of Jewish Burial In New York
By BETH HARPAZ
It was 1654 when the first Jews arrived in New York, then known as New Amsterdam. Two years later, they asked colonial authorities for permission to establish a separate “burying place” rather than inter their dead in the colony’s common graveyard.
A new book, Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Burial in New York by Professor Allan Amanik (Brooklyn College), chronicles the city’s “evolving Jewish deathways,” from its first 17th century graveyard in Manhattan, through the sprawling cemeteries still in use in sections of Brooklyn and Queens.
Initially, Amanik writes, “synagogue elders wielded immense control” over Jewish burial in order to “regulate communal behavior.” Jews who owed synagogue dues, missed services, married out of the faith, or neglected certain religious practices were barred from Jewish burial grounds.
Synagogue elders also arranged graves chronologically by date of death as a “more fitting monument” to New York’s Jewish community than family plots. But rank-and-file Jews protested: They wanted to rest near their loved ones for eternity. The practice finally changed in the 19th century so that family members could be buried together.
Jewish burial and benevolent societies also sprang up in the 19th century to offer widows’ pensions, funeral insurance, and other benefits to protect families from poverty if a breadwinner died. At the same time, vast new “rural” cemeteries were built on what was once farmland in Brooklyn and Queens. Suddenly Jews — and everyone else — could buy their own plots.
This “easily purchased cemetery land fueled communal autonomy as Jewish burial societies and fledgling fraternal lodges found new self-determination … independently from synagogues and their demanding rules.” By the mid-20th century, synagogues had lost so much influence over Jewish burials that they “had to resort to marketing strategies” to keep a hand in death planning. The rise of the funeral industry also challenged “synagogue power structures” by allowing consumers to hire professionals to handle death arrangements.
Death, Amanik writes, is “an engine of history in its own right,” and his account of Jewish deathways responding to “key forces … tells a broader story of life in America.”