Justice, Religion

Greening Haolam Habah

(“Haolam Habah” = “The world to come,” a traditional euphemism for the afterlife)*
The Boston Globe today caught up with the green burial movement, a growing trend of individuals and funeral professionals moving towards more environmentally-friendly approaches to internment.
The section that caught my eye comes about half-way through the article:

[In Massachusetts] cemeteries set their own rules, and typically install concrete grave boxes to keep the landscape even, for easier maintenance, and prevent the ground from caving into a grave site. For Jewish burials, in which an unembalmed body is placed in the earth in a pine box, a cemetery will forgo the bottom of the concrete liner, allowing the casket to make contact with the dirt.
In 2006, when Rachael Stark of Arlington was trying to bury her husband in an environmentally friendly way at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near the town’s center, she chose a Jewish burial, which is green by default.
“If I had said I want to do an eco-funeral,” said Stark, an environmentalist with Jewish roots, “I don’t know that the funeral home and cemetery would have respected that.”

a plain pine coffinSo as the rest of the industry catches up to what Jewish tradition (and, I suspect, other traditions as well) already know, I wonder: will this be a new hook into Judaism for a different brand of seekers? Will (should?) the Jewish establishment exploit the environmental friendliness of Jewish burial as a way to entice more Jews towards (at least one slice of) Jewish observance? Or would that just feel icky?
* On a different note, I’m trying to be more conscious of the ways that my writing can limit the audience to an already-knowledgeable in-group. I’d like the content at Jewschool to be accessible to all who are interested, so I’m attempting to do my part by decoding Hebrew terms, Jewish jargon, etc. Thanks to Victor who has been asking for terms-definitions in the comments section for reminding me that not everyone speaks the Jewish Establishment Lingo.

12 thoughts on “Greening Haolam Habah

  1. Thanks Dlevy.
    Muslims bury without any casket. Anyone know if that’s how we used to do it? Trees were not as plentiful during the Temple periods, and using wood for burial may have been wasteful. The ancient tombs in Israel I’ve seen were more for nobility or individuals of consequence, for lack of a better term, and they are usually stone constructions, although I don’t know if the person is buried above ground in the stone tomb, or below ground under it.
    Also, a lot of Jews used to be buried in caves, which is halachically acceptable. One of my Palestinian friends comes from a village in the West Bank, and near her village are caves. One of them is full of children skeletons – they call it the Children’s Cave, and it is commonly understood that it is a ancient Jewish grave site.

  2. Victor-
    In the times of the Talmud (and likely before and for some time after in dry climates) we buried in shrouds, just like Muslims. After all, our traditions are nearly identical in many ways, because, well, we’re siblings after all… I also just want to note, not only is Jewish burial “green,” it’s also affordable!

  3. Jewish burial may be affordable in theory, but in practice there’s a long way to go before that’s actually true. Boston’s Jewish Advocate had an article last week about the emergence of non-profit funeral homes, but alas, they are still in the minority of what’s available to those seeking Jewish burial in the US today. Here’s a link to the article, although I think it’s only viewable to those with an online subscription to the paper: http://www.thejewishadvocate.com/news/2009/0220/top_news/002.html

  4. Burying the body is affordable, but rest assured headstone making as well as funerary rites (including all those meals!) are not.
    In an ironic twist of the tradition, an austere plain wooden coffin (showing that ALL Jews are equally mortal before HaMaqom) is sometimes paired with a large and extremely extravagent tombstone. Yes, our names live on in our deeds, but apparently some people want to show some EXTRA presence after death.

  5. Personal pet peeve: non-profit has nothing to do with cost or even organizational intent to reduce cost. There are plenty of non-profit organizations (including most hospitals in the US), whose members, employees or administrators make six and seven figure salaries. In many cases, “non-profit” is just a strategy for deferring tax liabilities.

  6. I suppose I should have said “relatively low-cost.” In many places, a coffin alone can run thousands of dollars. True, funeral homes charge outrageous prices because people really have no choice but to pay what they ask, however, at least in Los Angeles, the cost of the plain pine coffin is negligible compared to the more ornate and “non-traditional” options.

  7. actually- in second temple times we used to lay the body out in a cave for the flesh to decompose for 3 days and then would disassemble the skeleton and place it in an ossuary- which then was often a stone box the length of a femur and the width of a rib cage/pelvis (the stone ones survived- maybe they did have wood too?). custom was to check on the body on the 3rd day. Keep in mind that bodies dont decompose well in sand, which may have been the reason for this form of burial. A famous example of this jewish burial custom is jesus’s desciples checking on his body on the 3rd day.
    I know that there was a time when we buried bodies only in shrouds- and I am not sure when that started or stopped. Now, the body is laid to rest in a shroud inside the wooden casket.

  8. There may have been a greater variety of carnivore wildlife once Jews were expelled to Europe. It’s not pleasant to bury your family member, and then come back in a month to find the area ransacked by animals and half the body missing.

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