Sunday, October 30, 2005

Law chafes against the spiritual

Embalmment statute runs counter to Jewish tradition banning procedure

Sending Grace Weinberg to her final resting place nearly came down to a choice of breaking the laws of this world or those of the next.
Weinberg was 84 years old when she moved in with her daughter Sheryl in Juneau in 1995. Grace was an active member in the town's small Jewish community and even led an aerobics class three days a week.

But in spring 2003, the 92-year-old's health had diminished, and she and her daughter began to plan her funeral.

Grace's final resting place was to be beside her late husband in Arizona. But when Sheryl met with a Juneau funeral director about transporting her mother to Phoenix, she hit an obstacle: Bodies cannot cross Alaska state lines unless they have been embalmed.

"We're Jewish," Weinberg said. "When I told him she couldn't be embalmed, he told me that was impossible."

Jewish tradition prohibits the dead from being embalmed, according to several rabbis and religious scholars. That's because all the organs and fluids are sacred and must be buried with the body, and the embalming process removes them and replaces them with chemicals to slow decomposition.

"The reason it's not permitted is because we use the notion from dust to dust," said Rabbi Edythe Menscher of the Union for Reform Judaism based in New York. "As you are created, so you return."

Some other faiths, such as Islam, also prohibit embalming the dead.

In the Weinbergs' case, it became a matter of working around the law of the state to comply with the law of their faith.

Sheryl Weinberg spent six weeks talking to state officials and medical examiners, trying to get a waiver to transport her mother's remains. It was important that the paperwork be in place because once Grace died, Jewish law required she be buried as quickly as possible.

The waiver came through just weeks before Grace died in August 2003. Her body was sent quickly to Phoenix, unembalmed.

"Had we not had the waiver, it would have been impossible to have honored her wish," her daughter said.

Sheryl Weinberg has taken her fight to Alaska's Capitol, where she hopes to see the law struck down. She said she does not want other families to go through what she did as she prepared for her mother's death.

"The fact that I had a roadblock almost first thing and had to secure this waiver, it was not something I relished, but I had to pursue it to the end," she said.

The law that requires bodies be embalmed has been part of state public health regulations since Alaska was a territory.

"This could be an artifact from the time when the technology provided that dry ice would be packed on the body and be shipped on a freighter," said Sen. Kim Elton, a Democrat from Juneau and a sponsor of a bill to change the law.

Elton and the other sponsors say technological advances and daily jet service have reduced the health concerns the law was meant to address.

Allowing the law to stand now infringes on religious liberty, they say.

Deb Erickson, deputy director of the state Department of Health, said the issue rarely comes up in Alaska, where the Lubavitch Jewish Center estimates about 5,000 of the state's population of nearly 650,000 are Jewish.

Erickson said she can remember two cases in the past two years when embalming waivers were requested.

"We haven't hesitated to grant a waiver in the past when it's due to religious services," she said.

At least one funeral director doesn't think changing the law is a good idea. Bill Wilkerson, general manager of Alaskan Memorial Park and Mortuary in Juneau, said he believes transporting unembalmed bodies could pose a health risk or cause others discomfort, such as passengers aboard a plane that carries an unembalmed body not properly sealed in a container.

Changing the law also could cut into the bottom line of funeral parlors, which charge for embalming.

"It's not a big issue, but it could become a big issue if it came to somebody who didn't want to pay for embalming," Wilkerson said.

There is no public health threat in transporting an unembalmed body on a common carrier such as an airplane as long as the body is in a sealed container, Erickson said. The proposed law change would still require embalming for bodies carrying communicable diseases, she added.

An Alaska Airlines spokeswoman said the airline's policies follow state law. If the law in Alaska changes, the airline would adjust its policies, she said.

Rabbi Yosef Greenberg of the Lubavitch Jewish Center in Anchorage said the issue does not come up frequently now, but Alaska's population and tourism industry is growing. Last year, he said, he helped secure a waiver to return to Israel the bodies of two Israeli tourists who died in a car crash.

Greenberg said he fully supports changing the law.

"I think it's a very crucial resolution," Greenberg said.

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