Eco-Funeral? Jewish Burial Rites Are Green.

jewish grave moroccoTraditional Jewish burials: guidelines to a green farewell.

The recent controversy over arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea has piqued an interest in eco-funerals here at Green Prophet.

It can hardly get more friendly to the environment than a biodegradable cloth  shroud in which to wrap the corpse, plus weights to ballast – then a rapid descent to the fishes’ dining hall. See our post about Bin Laden’s demise and the environment here. (As our grandparents ironically say, With “friends” like him, who needs enemies?)

Another green way to view the inevitable has long existed in Judaism’s traditional burial rites.  (See our posts about innovative ways to green Jewish life, like  building a sukkah with hybrid bamboo and celebrating Tu B’Shvat, or Jewish Earth Day.) Among eco-friendly Jewish burial laws are:

  • No wake or viewing of the corpse; burial must take place as soon as possible. This practice acknowledges the simple fact of bodily decomposition and is considered respectful to the dead, as opposed to prolonging the time the person must suffer separation from the spiritual realm.
  • Embalming is not an option. The desired effect is the rapid disintegration of the material in order to free the spirit. And on the green side, no toxic embalming fluids seeping into the ground.
  • Bodies must be buried, not cremated. Cremation, always forbidden in Jewish law, has become especially abhorrent in Judaism after the Holocaust. Apart from which, fires are responsible for a large part of worldwide air pollution.
  • A plain shroud suffices to contain the  deceased in Israel. No chemically-treated or metal container to prevent the contact of the body with the earth. Jews are pretty matter-of-fact about what happens to the body when the soul leaves it behind. (In countries where law mandates coffin burial, Jews choose wooden ones.)
  • While not forbidden, big flower arrangements and wreathes are not a traditional feature of a Jewish funeral. As a mark of respect, bereaved and visitors place stones on the grave.

Many traditional funeral customs exist mostly to comfort the bereaved, and this is natural and honorable. Yet  in reducing funeral practices to basics, Judaism respects the dead – while doing nothing to upset the balance of the planet’s health.

More on the Jewish way of living green from Green Prophet:

Photo of Jewish graves in Marrakesh, Morocco, by Wrote via Flickr.

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11 thoughts on “Eco-Funeral? Jewish Burial Rites Are Green.”

  1. JournJock says:

    The picture chosen for this article does not clearly illustrate
    the stones left by visitors at a Jewish cemetery. For a picture with a good explanation, try Why do visitors leave stones?

  2. JournJock says:

    A well-known Jewish example of an overcrowded burial site is the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.

    The tourist information when I was last there pointed out that — since the Jews in the 15th to 18th centuries were allowed only this one burial site in Prague — they brought in ever more fresh dirt to bury ever more bodies on top of the now buried earlier graves, perhaps 10 or 12 layers worth, creating a clearly discernible hill.

  3. My husband worked for years in the funeral business in the US, and his father here in Israel has helped prepared many bodies for burial according to Jewish traditions. Both affirm that the Jewish method is far less intrusive to the planet. The American Way of Death is a book that goes into the business (and polluted side) of burial. Great article.

    1. Miriam Kresh says:

      Thanks for the good words, Tinamarie.

  4. Miriam Kresh says:

    Very interesting, Esther. Very ecology-friendly solutions to the problem of limited land in Israel.

  5. Esther Hecht says:

    Miriam Kresh wrote: “As Jews are a tiny minority in the world population, I don’t believe that expanding Jewish cemetery space poses a hazard to space for the living.”
    In Israel, however, this is indeed a very serious problem, especially in the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area and in Jerusalem. That is why Israel has had to adopt dense burial: that is, burial in multistory structures (you can see them in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery), burial in above-ground niches, and double burial (of a husband and wife in the same grave). Dense burial is being adopted in Jewish cemeteries elsewhere, for example in Los Angeles. You can read more about it here: http://green-dense-burial.com/psburial.html which includes my article, written 10 years ago, on the subject: http://green-dense-burial.com/press/jghost.pdf

  6. Miriam Kresh says:

    James, my experience with burial is limited also, but I do know that head stones are local stone, not imported. The custom of using head stones to mark the grave seems universal among Western cultures and is certainly not limited to Jewish burials.

    The association that supervises care for the deceased, burials and cemetery maintenance is supported by donations and, at least in Israel, partly by the government. In turn, they themselves are active in charitable community work.I assume your organization also has at least a small staff that supervises burial procedure and maintenance of the grounds.

    As Jews are a tiny minority in the world population, I don’t believe that expanding Jewish cemetery space poses a hazard to space for the living.

  7. James Leedam says:

    Karin, many thanks for that. Perhaps my question about grave reuse overshadowed the other environmental questions that I attempted to raise. Further comments would be appreciated. James

  8. Jews don’t reuse graves because they believe when the messiah comes their bodies will live again. It’s very important for a Jew that their body remains intact.

  9. James Leedam says:

    I am not Jewish myself, but admire many aspects of Jewish funerals which are environmentally sensitive. However, my experience of Jewish cemeteries is that graves are capped with large imported memorial stones which stand proud of the ground. My understanding is that graves are not reused. This practice poses issues of environmental sustainability as the quarrying and importation of stones and the progressive spread of cemeteries impact on the land; financial sustainability, concerning the cost of perpetual maintenance of such graves; and social sustainability, as grave space runs out.

    We manage six natural burial grounds around the UK and have welcomed a small number of Jewish families who have chosen to come to us. Our burial grounds offer a completely sustainable farewell – simple funerals in beautiful natural surroundings.

  10. Shroudwoman says:

    Check out KINKARACO – green burial products the first company to invent a secular shroud product for environmental purposes for use in home funerals, traditional funeral homes and green cemeteries.
    We didn’t think it fair that if you were Muslim you could get a shroud burial anywhere within 24 hrs. with no vault but not if you were of no particular Faith but had always lived a natural healthy lifestyle.
    We now have 6 happy years of serving families with organic options for meaningful death.
    Thank you

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