A Radical Departure

An open-casket memorial service with music by Shlomo Artzi? Cremation? For a year, Alon Nativ, a former high?tech worker, has been providing funeral services to Israelis who do not want to abide by the dictates of the Hevra Kadisha burial society.

The route to the crematorium is winding and passes down a number of side roads and dirt paths. Alon Nativ, the owner and manager of Alei Shalekhet ("Autumn Leaves") has had us sign a confidentiality agreement prior to this trip, but it was hardly necessary. We'd never be able to retrace the path we took following closely behind Nativ's big motorcycle. The crematorium is located behind a makeshift-looking tin barrier, in a place that looks like an agricultural industrial zone a jumble of garages and packing houses amid which remnants of orchards are still visible somewhere in the Sharon region. Nothing is meant to give away the presence of a crematorium here.

The person who leased the land to Nativ is worried about becoming the target of attacks from ultra-Orthodox groups. This is the source of the secrecy surrounding the event to which we have been invited the cremation of the body of an older man who died two days earlier. The atmosphere is mysterious and somewhat adventurous, almost criminal-feeling, though everything that will be done is perfectly legal, and approved with consents and signatures.

The operation of a crematorium does not require any special conditions or even that much space. Behind the tin fence is a not-very-large building with an ambulance parked beside it. Amir, a man of about 40 who sports a kippah, lights the oven inside. The oven is the story: It is the only one of its kind in Israel; it heats up to a temperature of 1,200 degrees Celsius and, according to Nativ, cost millions of shekels and was specially ordered from the United States. Next to it is an appliance resembling a food-processor, used post-cremation to make the ashes "pureed and smooth," as Nativ describes it.

Amir and Nativ pull a cardboard box out of the ambulance; it looks like a huge, long shoebox, except that the word "head" is written on one end. As they transfer it to the stretcher, the sides of the carton collapse a little and the (fully dressed) corpse inside is partially revealed. "This is a disposable coffin," Nativ explains. Does such a thing really exist? There are wooden coffins, which are used for burial, and cardboard ones, which are used for cremation.

Amir, a medic by trade, underwent special training in the cremating of human bodies with an American expert who was invited to Israel. "I check each body before the cremation," he says, displaying a rod-shaped metal detector similar to the ones used by security guards at the entrance to shopping malls. "If there's a heartbeat, I catch it right away. They usually find that in the hospital, but I check again just in case."

"In the United States alone, approximately 15,000 Jews are cremated each year!" proclaims an Alei Shalekhet advertising brochure. Hallelujah. But what else can you do when even cremation has to be advertised somehow and when there's no better way than to use those magic words "like in America"? On the other hand, what about the associations this kind of thing stirs up? Nativ says he isn't thinking at all about the Holocaust but "more about people like Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and John Lennon, who all explicitly requested that their bodies be cremated."

Nativ's marketing methodology aims to create the impression that cremation just like the option to be buried in a coffin, with or without makeup, with clothing or shrouds, in a secular ceremony with or without religious nuances, with or without musical accompaniment and so on, for the price of NIS 6,500 is the latest thing among the movers and shakers in Israeli society. He also drops heavy hints about "very, very" famous people who appear on his secret waiting list of about 200 names. This is not your conventional waiting list: The people on it would be quite content to go on waiting forever.

Planning their final departureThe people on Nativ's waiting list are the type who prefer to take care ahead of time of all the arrangements surrounding their death. These are people who know exactly how they wish to part from the world. Aside from the death itself (and not even that in every case), they are not interested in leaving anything to chance. You may be tempted to call them control freaks people who can't ever relax and leave it to others around them to get the job done. Nativ prefers to call them "responsible people."

Who taught him to burn Jews, I asked Nativ at our first meeting, in a coffee shop at a gas station on the coastal road. Nothing in the fair-haired and light-eyed motorcyclist's appearance hints at any morbid leanings. He is 42 and comes from a fine family; his older sister is an oncologist and another sister is a Technion graduate. He used to work in high-tech and spent a lot of time in Europe, in the Czech Republic mostly, where he saw funerals of a different kind than he was accustomed to.

Cemeteries in other countries like the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, for instance are sometimes beautiful tourist sites as well, or sometimes just a peaceful corner of a tree-filled churchyard. The cemeteries in Israel are another story altogether, except for the cemeteries of kibbutzim and moshavim. The religious funerals in Israel also bear no resemblance to those that are held abroad and which are often seen in movies. There, the mourning is always well-designed: a small group of elegant people men in suits, women in wide-brimmed hats, the widow in a black dress and black hat, the fine wooden coffin even the deceased looks his best.

By comparison, funerals in Israel are not very aesthetic. Delicacy isn't always the strong suit of the Hevra Kadisha burial society workers. Frequently, they rush and don't speak clearly, and afterward, there's the sight of the bodies in sacks tossed into the graves. And with the cemeteries already being so crowded, often several funerals are taking place at once, so it is quite noisy. In certain places, the mourners have to step over other graves and crowd amid the headstones to get near the open grave.

Anyone who has been to secular funerals, however, can't help but notice the tremendous difference. The cemeteries, which generally belong to the kibbutzim, are well-tended and shady; the ceremonies are carefully organized and the words recited there have a clear connection to the life and spirit of the deceased. The body is concealed in the coffin. The mourners are given time to bid the deceased farewell. No one forces the deceased who was secular his entire life to join religious Judaism against his will.

But such funerals long ago became almost a type of status symbol, both because they entail the need to purchase a plot in a kibbutz cemetery and therefore are more expensive, and because they require much careful planning. Many people who may have liked to organize such a funeral for their loved one are deterred in the end by all the arrangements they're required to make, and during the most trying time of grief, especially when the person has died at home: to arrange for an ambulance and a refrigeration room, to find a place in one of the kibbutzim and to see to an amplification system, chairs, programs and someone to preside over the funeral, a coffin, transportation and much more.

Cremation aside, Alei Shalekhet is the first company to offer to take care of all the arrangements. "People who've used our services have said to me: 'Suddenly I felt like I was coming to the funeral as a guest,'" Nativ relates proudly. When he began advertising his business about a year ago, he received a congratulatory letter from linguistics professor and chairman of the Ani Yisraeli ("I am an Israeli") organization, Uzi Ornan. .?About 40 years ago, I tried to establish such a [burial] society to replace the Hevra Kadisha," Ornan says. "I even came up with a great name for it Afar Ve'Efer ("Dust and Ashes") and we were in discussions with the owners of lands that would be designated for cemeteries, but in the end, I couldn't get it off the ground. It required a lot of money and the people I turned to weren't receptive. When I saw the ad for Alei Shalekhet, I wrote them a card to congratulate them, and later I met with Alon Nativ and told him about my experiences."

And have you chosen to arrange your funeral ahead of time with Alei Shalekhet?

"No. The way I wish to die and be buried is a personal matter and I have no desire to talk about it. Alei Shalekhet mostly deals with ceremonies, but they don't have their own cemeteries. Their ceremonies are lovely and the main thing is that they don't force anything on anyone. They adapt the ceremony to each individual. But the ceremony isn't as important to me as the cemetery. To me, it's very important not to have any of this religious business. I don't want them to take my body and put it in a Jewish cemetery. And I don't want the Hevra Kadisha to get near me at all because I don't want to discriminate against people according to their background or their religion. I want everyone to be equal. In Israel, there is discrimination, not just among the living but among the dead. Perhaps you are aware that all the Hevra Kadisha societies are aimed at one religion alone, to which I don't belong and in which I am not interested. The religious have power and the establishment has the power to bring people into Judaism against their will after their death. I don't' want to support this establishment or to support the Hevra Kadisha."

No, Nativ doesn't think is a little weird to be an "undertaker," as his kids refer to his occupation. Then he says that all he really did was identify a business opportunity, and that his first introduction to the idea occurred when a relative showed up at his mother's home asking to spread her husband's ashes in his mother's garden. "And in addition there was my own personal desire. I thought about how I'd like to be buried. I thought I'd prefer that my body was cremated. I'd seen people have all sorts of run-ins with the Hevra Kadisha and I didn't like it."

Some time after that, in 2003, "I happened to end up running around with a friend of mine after the death of his father, who was a total atheist. We were running around trying to find a secular burial place for his father and in the end we found a place on a kibbutz, but it was all done under time pressure and the whole ceremony was practically improvised on the spot and I saw how complicated the whole thing can be. Even a question like who do you inform becomes a big problem when the father kept all his friends' phone numbers on the computer and you need a code to get into it. When I came home I said to my wife: 'When I die, I want them to cremate my body and I want a secular funeral. I want such and such to be said and for these people and not other people to come.' And my wife said to me: 'I could never organize all that. You want it? You take care of it.' So that's what I decided to do."

He searched for ways to do it and traveled abroad to learn the business. "I visited a lot of funeral homes and attended many funerals. I read all the material one could read on the subject. In America, it's a whole recognized field of study called 'Funeral Directing' you study for a diploma and have to pass exams. I also studied the legal aspects of it and found that there was no legal prohibition in Israel against the cremation of bodies, or regarding secular burials in an open or closed coffin. Theoretically, anyone could open a funeral home or a crematorium."

In June 2004, together with a silent partner, he launched Alei Shalekhet. He opened an office in one of the Kfar Sava malls at the beginning of this year and since March, has been operating the crematorium as well. He is currently negotiating with several landowners to purchase land for the purpose of building private cemeteries.