It was a suffocating August day, and the air conditioner in the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Israeli journalists union wasn’t working properly. Even for a lying in state it was unusually depressing.
Inside the coffin were the remains of journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery, and outside it were the remains of the Israeli left. Most of the people crowded into the room – the remnants of activist movements and combative journalism – seemed worn out.
Avnery had instructed that he be cremated. In the backyard, a commercial vehicle was waiting to take his body to the crematorium. For two hours, I lay in wait for the van, hoping I’d thereby find my way to the secret facility.
The reasons for its secrecy are understandable: 'Aley Shalechet,' the oldest and best known cremation company in Israel, saw its crematorium set aflame and destroyed in 2007, at the height of the ultra-Orthodox war against the right to cremate bodies in Israel. Following this incident, the company relocated the crematorium, and since then, it has insisted on even more stringent secrecy than it did before.
I realized that if I were going to make it to the crematorium I was so curious about, I would have to adopt the tactic every Israeli knows: working the other side of the street. That’s how I discovered the Sagys.
For more than 10 years, 'Aley Shalechet' was the only cremation company in Israel. It fought wars with the ultra-Orthodox, but on the commercial field, it was without competition.
But a little over two years ago, a husband and wife from the city of Hadera founded the 'High Spirit' company. The monopoly on cremation in Israel had been broken.
Sharon and Avivit Sagy never planned on cremating bodies for a living. He’s a lawyer and she used to teach movement classes in preschools. But a few years ago, the two spotted a new business opportunity when Sharon’s parents decided they wanted to donate their bodies to science.
The parents asked their son to help them through the process, and when Sharon and Avivit went over the forms, they noticed that one question was what should be done with the remains of the body once the scientists were through with it. They discovered that the university would cremate the remains if the deceased requested it, most often in the case of bodies from overseas.
Avivit was surprised. She didn’t know that cremation was even an option in Israel. They investigated and discovered Aley Shalechet. “We said, wow, there’s room for another company. There should be competition.’ That’s how the idea was born.”
“At first, when we talked about it, we saw it as a business opportunity. We said, ‘Gee, one company is a monopoly, let’s open another one.’ Afterward, we started reading and researching a bit more.”
'The place was meant for cremation, and it was cremated'
The Sagys are lovely people, very open and authentic. They are in their mid-40s, with three children. They speak freely, without the pomposity I’d previously encountered in this field.
“We planned the business for seven or eight years,” says Sharon. “At first it was just an idea; then we examined feasibility, size, legality, environmental considerations, how much crematoria cost, who would operate them.”
They are working in a field that to some extent had already been ploughed for them by Aley Shalechet. Much of the field work had been done previously by their older rival, and basic questions about legal and environmental issues had already been investigated and answered.
The battle with the ultra-Orthodox, who mobilized to fight against Aley Shalechet when it first opened, had also died down a bit.
When Aley Shalechet’s facility was burned down (immediately after its location was publicized in a local ultra-Orthodox paper), Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox emergency response organization ZAKA, praised the crime, saying, “The place was meant for cremation, and it was cremated.” This week, 11 years later, Meshi-Zahav sounded as if he’d reconciled himself to the existence of a cremation industry in Israel, but downplayed its size.
“At the time, we were fighting for the principle,” he said. “We tried to lead moves in the Knesset, but they didn’t go anywhere.
“I asked late minister Tommy Lapid at the time if this didn’t remind him of the crematoria in the Holocaust,” he added, referring to the militantly secular politician who had survived the Holocaust. “But in any case, we saw that in Israel, this whole issue wasn’t catching on. Just a few immigrants from Russia and other similar countries or non-Jews who died in Israel.”
Thus Meshi-Zahav has abandoned the active fight, which in the past included complaints to the police and reports in ultra-Orthodox newspapers. “We thought it was a mistake to give them all the publicity, because most of the Israeli public doesn’t connect to this, isn’t familiar with it and doesn’t do it,” he said. “Only a tiny minority.”
Nevertheless, it’s important for him to insist that the motives for opening crematoria are purely economic. “Its filthy lucre, there’s no principle here,” he said. “They tried to dress it up in Biblical motives and say King Saul was cremated. But it’s all to make money. They won’t cremate you for free.”
Yet even though the ultra-Orthodox struggle has died down, there’s no sign outside the High Spirit office in Hadera and in fact you won’t find the company’s name anywhere on the building. The Sagys said that’s for security reasons.
The Champions League of the dead
How many people does High Spirit cremate? Avivit declined to disclose figures, and Sharon was willing to say only that it’s a double-digit number per month.
“Most of the customers are from the Champions League,” Sharon said. “It’s not real Israelis that we know.”
“Also people with a lot of education – PhDs and professors, “Avivit added.
“Intellectuals,” Sharon agreed.
Let's be honest: in economically weaker communities High Spirit has fewer clients than it does in upscale neighborhoods. And yet, cremation is generally something embraced by people who grew up in a non-Jewish environment. Farewell ceremonies in front of an open casket are usually found in Christian families. They say it’s more of a religious-communal issue, not a financial one. “I don’t think a family’s financial situation plays a role” says Sharon.
How much does it actually cost to get cremated in Israel? The basic package costs 11,000 shekels (about $3,000), with 3,000 shekels paid as a deposit, and the balance after a person’s death.
The basic package includes transporting the body to the crematorium and cremating it. With the minimum package the family receives the ashes in a cardboard box (for an additional 250 shekels one can get a a cloth-covered plastic container), along with two documents, in Hebrew and English.
One attests to the execution of the cremation while the other describes the content of the urn. When necessary, the company can hold the body in refrigeration up to a week so that family members who might be abroad can come and take their leave of the deceased.
What one does with the ashes depends on the deceased or the family, according to personal taste and financial ability. Some people end up in an urn, some are made into an earring and others are scattered at sea, in a park or the desert. Avivit says that not all their clients are interested in cremation: She was recently contacted by someone who wanted his body thrown whole into the sea, after his death, so that fish could benefit from it. She replied that with the approval of the court and the Ministry for Environmental Protection, this would be possible.
Sharon acknowledged that Aley Shalechet still controls the market. “There’s more searches for Aley Shalechet than for cremation,” he said. “They’re really synonymous. But what can you do? They were all alone for 13 or 14 years. It’s a brand.”
Nevertheless, he said there’s enough business for two such companies in Israel – though not for three, he added.
In any case, the market is small and the competition is fierce. When you do a Google search for Aley Shalechet, an advertisement for High Spirit appears.
Daily contact with the bereaved
The company’s first challenge was to make people aware that a new player had entered the cremation market. Avivit made the rounds of hospitals and hospices to let them know the company was open for business.
The Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, which carries out autopsies in cases of unnatural deaths, wouldn’t even let her enter the premises until Sharon arrived (“I made a big fuss.”). But in the end, they had a meeting with “all the bigwigs at the institute,” at which Avivit and Sharon presented their company. And eventually, their interlocutors seemed to understand that they, too, were in the game. “The boss told them, ‘If they ask you where cremation is done, there are two companies.”
Even when Avivit is at home, her phone is always at hand. That’s how it’s been for two years now.
“At first, we didn’t intend for her to talk with customers,” said Sharon. “No one anticipated then the type of interaction that exists with the deceased and the families today.”
Avivit said that at times, she’s forced to deal with difficult human situations. “Sometimes there are cases where I cry. We deal not only with children [of the deceased], but also with adults who are sick. It’s not easy.”
Before she got drawn into daily contact with the bereaved, the sick and the dying, Avivit didn’t think much about death. “I really didn’t,” she said.
“But I was always bothered by ordinary burials, how they threw the body into the grave [in a shroud]. As far back as my grandfather and grandmother, when I saw that, I thought, why is it like that? Why not in a coffin? Why are soldiers and government ministers buried in a coffin, but not ordinary people? Are they less valuable? Personally, this is something that always bothered me.”
Sharon said it never bothered him, but when the day comes, he indeed wants to be cremated.
Avivit didn’t read books or take courses on the right way to speak with mourners or people about to die. “Perhaps it’s my nature. When a person comes, you’re with him. That’s the nature of being human.
“I’m also not in favor of pressuring people,” she added. “On the contrary, let them take their time, so they’ll be at peace with their decision. They’re at a very confusing moment in their lives and you have to help them.”
At the moment, aside from Avivit and one woman who helps her with Russian-speaking customers, High Spirit has only one other employee, whose job is to operate the crematorium and to prepare the bodies for funerals with open coffins. She said finding him was the hardest part of setting up the business.
“We wanted someone with professional knowledge, who would know how to operate the machinery and also how to make up bodies – someone who had worked in the field for years. It was hard, because here in Israel, there’s only one company.”
“It’s not for nothing that foreign workers come to Israel,” added Sharon. “Here, you earn more money. We arranged his immigration. Let’s say he lives well. He doesn’t have to work 24/7.”
“The oven is very user-friendly,” Avivit chimed in.
She invited me to a farewell ceremony at a Kfar Sava cemetery. Naturally, there was no burial; at the end of the ceremony, the coffin was taken to the crematorium.
The customer was from Romania. The mourners were well dressed compared to their T-shirt-clad peers you see at typical Israeli funerals, and as they assembled, pleasant background music was playing, like at a wedding reception. Friends and relatives eulogized the deceased, who was in the coffin nearby. Most of them spoke in English.
One termed him a bon vivant. What a nice ending to a human life. I wondered if when I die, people will call me a bon vivant.
The widow debated until the last minute over whether to have the ceremony with an open or closed coffin. In the end, because of her husband’s health problems, she decided on the closed coffin.
But Avivit said the makeup can hide anything. “It’s wonderful. You see a man who has died, and he’s made up and dressed; he looks like he’s sleeping.”