By Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®
The annual celebration of Earth Day on April 21 reminds us to “green” our activities to help the planet. Beyond recycling and using less energy, a growing number of folks are considering green burial to reduce toxic pollutants and resource use.
Many people don’t realize that Jewish burial traditions naturally equate to green burial. The rising interest in green burial is actually a return to practices people used prior to the rise of the modern funeral industry – practices that Jews have used throughout the centuries.
A staggering amount of resources are spent annually on traditional non-Jewish funerals, with a huge environmental impact. According to a 2002 independent study by science writer Mary Woodsen, who works at Cornell University, every year, conventional burials utilize more than 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid, which put toxins and carcinogens into the earth.
Over 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete is used for vaults, more than 90,000 tons of steel and 27 hundred tons of copper and bronze are made into caskets, and 14,000 tons of steel are buried as underground vaults.
That’s enough metal to build a Golden Gate Bridge each year, and enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit, according to Joe Sehee, Executive Director of the nonprofit Green Burial Council.
Jewish burial, like green burial, fosters returning to the earth as naturally as possible. Avoiding embalming, using biodegradable materials, and putting the body in contact with the earth are hallmarks of both approaches to body disposition.
Embalming was created during the Civil War, when surgeon-embalmers injected toxic chemical compounds into dead soldiers to help preserve their bodies long enough to ship them home for burial. The process now involves flushing blood from the veins and replacing it with a formaldehyde-based solution that temporarily preserves and disinfects the body.
No state laws dictate embalming, but it is a moneymaking service non-Jewish funeral homes are eager to provide. Many funeral homes will require embalming before displaying a body for longer than a quick look by immediate family.
Jewish tradition prohibits embalming, as the blood is considered a part of the body to be buried with the deceased. Every speck of blood, as well as any hair that comes loose while preparing the body, is gathered in a linen bag and placed in the casket with the body.
Jews also avoid displaying the body. It is considered disrespectful of the earthly vessel that once held the human spirit.
Jewish law calls for a burial to take place within 24 hours of a person’s death, unless there is a compelling reason for delay. It’s based on two biblical commandments, both found in Deuteronomy 21:23: “Thou shalt bury him the same day,” and “His body shall not remain all night.”
It’s also a practical concern. This practice originated in a desert culture with a hot climate and no refrigeration. Decomposition sets in within 24 hours. Nowadays, bodies can be effectively preserved for several days with modern refrigeration or the judicious use of dry ice.
A funeral can be delayed to accommodate the arrival of very close relatives, but never more than three days. Delaying burial is considered disrespectful to both the dead person and the family, who cannot properly mourn while their dead lie before them.
A simple wooden casket, sometimes with holes drilled in the bottom, helps hasten the biblical commandment “Unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19). The casket can be made from any kind of wood. Inexpensive soft wood such as pine is preferred over hardwoods, because it decomposes more rapidly. Kosher caskets contain no metal parts or animal-based glue and are not built on the Sabbath.
Jewish burial garments are made of pure white cotton or linen, reflecting the clothing of the High Priest as described in Exodus and Leviticus. The color white is a symbol of purity. The body, the linen garments, and the wood all deteriorate at about the same rate.
The practice of burying all Jews in the same type of simple garments was instituted eighteen hundred years ago when Rabbi Gamaliel instructed that rich and poor are equal before God. We all have the same parent; we all come to the same end – dust to dust.
Contact with the Earth
Placing the casket in direct contact with the earth is an important element of Jewish burial, to ensure the completion of the “dust to dust” cycle.
Most non-Jewish cemeteries dictate the use of in-ground burial vaults of metal or concrete to keep the earth from sinking as time goes by. The vault encloses and protects the casket from the earth.
Jewish cemeteries may fill in earth around the casket and use a liner above the casket to help keep the grave level. Some Jewish cemeteries avoid using any liners, resulting in an uneven surface as graves settle.
However, to get this kind of green burial in a Jewish cemetery, you need to be a Jew. Some cemeteries run by Reform synagogues allow intermarried non-Jews to be buried with their spouses. You can find a listing of green burial grounds springing up around the country at www.GreenBurialCouncil.org.
Both Jews and Muslims trace their ancestry to the patriarch Abraham. It’s interesting to note that Muslim burial traditions are very similar to Jewish traditions. Muslims also bury within 24 hours, avoid embalming, dress the deceased in white clothing, and bury them in contact with the earth, often in burial shrouds, with no casket.
If you want to “go green” with your burial, and there are no Green Burial Council-certified funeral homes in your area, tell the funeral director you want to follow Jewish traditions. Mother Earth will thank you.
Gail Rubin is a member of the cemetery committee for Congregation Albert and the Chevra Kaddisha in Albuquerque, NM. She is also the author and host of the award-winning book and television series, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. She is a Certified Thanatologist – a death educator – who uses humor and funny films to attract people to end-of-life conversations.