New Jersey bill allowing standalone crematories could benefit Hindu funeral rituals


(RNS) — At the funeral of Nikunj Trivedi’s uncle a few years ago, the hourslong Hindu funeral rites at a cremation site in New Jersey were compressed to fit a time limit. Only around 10 family members were able to stay with the body during the service, which would have been attended by hundreds of relatives back in India.

“You want to be able to do the cremation ceremony in a traditional way, and have a hall where people actually gather and pay their last rites and view,” said Trivedi, a New Jersey resident and the president of prominent Hindu advocacy organization Coalition for Hindus of North America. “The facility was not very conducive to Hindu traditional rituals and rites.”

Crematories in New Jersey are currently restricted to cemetery grounds, often associated with Christian religious institutions. CoHNA and other advocacy organizations, including the Indian Business Association of New Jersey and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, are in favor of New Jersey Assembly bill 4216, which would allow for standalone crematories in the state.

The bill, supported by a majority of the committee in a vote on June 3, is now passing on to the full Assembly. Hindu advocates hope the new bill would better fit the spiritual needs of a community that largely cremates its dead.

New Jersey Hindu families have expressed their frustration with existing crematories, including the lack of adequate viewing space needed for what is sometimes hundreds of guests and the challenge of performing a cremation that matches up with Hindu auspicious days and times with the crematory’s availability. The most requested accommodations from Hindu families, those in the business say, is simply more time with their deceased loved ones. 

In the Hindu faith, many believe cremation is the path that sets the being’s soul free to its next destination. Hindu families with vastly different regional customs and traditions complete a set of death rites that can last hours to help the soul pass through to the other side. 

“Let’s say if you’re doing a Vedic ritual that you want to do properly, and somebody is telling you, ‘Well, you can’t do it here because there’s a fire hazard, or you can’t do this because it’s going to take you another hour to do’ … so, you know, that kind of restriction,” said Trivedi.

“Other religious groups have their own cemeteries,” he added. “Hindus don’t really have that dedicated space that is standalone.”

But according to those in the funeral business, this change in the existing system might not be that straightforward. A representative of the National Cremation Association expressed their concern with the bill, which had been introduced last session and rejected. Then and now, they said, safety issues have arisen in other states, like Colorado and Texas, that allow standalone crematories, often located in industrial parks, storefronts or neighborhoods.

More and more Americans are choosing cremation, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, for either religious reasons or to avoid the increasing cost of burials. New Jersey, which has 80 crematories and a 55% cremation rate, according to a member of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, currently restricts any crematories not on cemetery grounds, including three long-standing funeral homes with crematories on their property. 

Funeral homes in the state cannot own and operate a cemetery or crematory, but funeral directors are responsible for the body’s preparation and dressing, the transportation of the loved one to the cremation site and the collection of cremated remains. They are also the ones who work directly with families and spiritual leaders to ensure all needs are met.

Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America, says current funeral providers are working to serve communities by staying “on top of immigration and demographic trends.”

“Everybody dies, right?” she said. “Every funeral director serves the family in front of them, and wants to do a good job by doing that. They’re called to service, and they see themselves as service providers, far and above a business owner.”

She added, “I don’t want to put the burden on the immigrant communities to educate funeral services about what they need, but we kind of need that, too. I hope they will experience openness when reaching out.”

Greg Young, founder of the Hindu Funeral Home, now the Asian Indian Funeral Service, hoped to tailor to the growing Hindu and Sikh community in New Jersey when he founded it 20 years ago. “With the help of priests,” he said, “we schooled ourselves in the traditions necessary to serve them properly.” Now, the state is home to almost half a million Hindus, many of whom he serves with crematory pujas, or religious ceremonies, either onsite or in-home.

An employee at the Middlesex County funeral home, Alex Freeman, says it has been “satisfying” to learn about regional Hindu funeral customs in her eight years at the facility, including certain rituals performed by the oldest male child of the deceased. The home helps facilitate up to 500 cremations per year and offers clients the repatriation of corpses or cremated remains to India.

“The families are always very pleasantly relieved when we tell them, ‘Listen, we can dress them for you,’” she said, calling it a “beautiful culture.”

“Your family’s Bengali, we’ll do the sari Bengali. They’re surprised when they come in and see that, like the pleats are perfect, the pallu right, things like that.”

But Young, who is a member of the Indian Business Association, thinks the New Jersey Indian and Hindu community he works closely with may be able to have their needs met faster by going through existing methods, such as partnering with and building a culturally and religiously sensitive building on existing cemetery grounds, rather than going through years of municipal and zoning frustrations.

“I agree with their intentions wholeheartedly,” said Young. “There is no question more crematories are needed. But I want to try to show them the easiest way to satisfy it. I want to see them get this done, the best way, the least expensive way, the fastest way and one that’s going to have lasting value.”

George Kelder, of the New Jersey State Funeral Association, said Hindu families, “one of the fastest growing populations in New Jersey,” have given more compliments than complaints for the current funeral homes’ ability to meet their cultural customs. Even so, Kelder agrees Hindus may want their own cremation facility. But he believes it should be on an existing cemetery — and is against allowing standalone crematories.

“We believe that the Hindu community has every right to create their own cremation facility that suits their rights and rituals, accommodates body preparation and the necessity for transportation, prayers and rituals, fire worship, lighting of the retort and the collection of the ashes for their final disposition,” he said. “But that is all currently allowed by statute. So that’s why we’re confused on why they’re going for this route.”

“We are a culturally rich, diverse state that we provide services to all, and we welcome all in coming into this profession to help provide services to their own people,” he added. “We just think conversation is important, and that sometimes just changing the law for the sake of changing the law doesn’t make sense from our perspective, because we know what can go wrong.”

Nevertheless, Trivedi hopes the bill will make way for a new Hindu space in the funeral business, perhaps new ventures with crematories that allow for services to occur during the cremation, not beforehand. “We as a community, we have resources, especially our brains, and we can actually find spaces and work with people.”

“We are an accommodating community, generally speaking, being an immigrant community, we don’t want to rock the boat, create an issue where it doesn’t need to be,” he said. “I can tell you that if it does happen, you’ll find more and more people willing to do this, you know, go to the dedicated Hindu facility.”

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