Rabbi Freedman and Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s contribution is written in the format of a rabbinic responsum, the traditional way of presenting answers to halachic questions.
I am committed to environmental care and am considering the merits of ‘woodland’ or ‘green’ burial. What would a Reform halachic view be?
Woodland or green burials are currently available in Britain (albeit not presently through Jewish burial societies). These burials offer “environmentally friendly” alternatives to traditional burials and cemeteries. They are in plots of land, such as woodland, where the environmental impact of burial is kept to a minimum, therefore most sites do not accept memorial headstones, but do allow trees to be planted to mark graves. Records of individual grave sites are maintained. The burial in a woodland area is often accompanied by the use of environmentally friendly coffins, such as those of cardboard, wicker or chipboard which are more biodegradable. There is a strong argument that their environmental impact is less than that of cremation, which causes damage by their associated emissions, particularly mercury.
There are a number of conditions that must be met for a suitable Jewish burial. The issue is whether a woodland burial is compatible or perhaps even exemplifies a suitable burial according to these conditions. The primary conditions are as follows:
- In relation to burial, the honour of the dead must be maintained in their burial (1) and the dead should be buried in the ground (2).
- There should be a place for mourners to visit and some means of identifying the place of the grave.
- A matzeivah is allowed but not required (3). Indeed, it is further suggested that the honour of the righteous is enduring and that a matzeivah is therefore unnecessary (4).
- The grave should be within an area that is set aside (purchased) for that purpose. No frivolity or partying should take place in that area (5).
- The grave and the grounds need to be guaranteed care and upkeep even if the Jewish community ceases to exist there(6).
Therefore we find that green burial is possible in accordance with all the above Jewish practices and preferences. Furthermore, the environmental concerns of the sho’el are themselves rooted in Jewish values and halachah (7) . Indeed the thrust of Jewish burial practice is to speed the return of the body to the ground and also to condone burial directly in the ground without a coffin (8). A biodegadable coffin (9) is in keeping with Jewish practice of biodegradable materials and the emphasis on the coffin being modest. Indeed it might be appropriate for a Jewish burial society simply to offer one suitable
style of coffin for woodland burials.
Although some common Jewish burial practices or customs (such as a stone matzeivah) are not possible as part of a woodland burial, a woodland burial is completely in accordance with the halachic requirements. A tree that marks the grave conforms with the halachic considerations. In Britain, woodland burial sites are legally required to be set aside for the sole purpose of burial. Moreover woodland burial particularly exemplifies practices that are desirable for Jewish burial (such as modest, quickly degradable coffins). Woodland burial is also an expression of more general Jewish values and practice of baal tashchit.
We would therefore support the practice of Jewish woodland burials in specially designated grounds under the auspices of a Jewish burial society. It would be appropriate for any new ohel constructed to be a ‘green building’.
1. B. Sanhedrin 46b-47a
3. M. Shekalim 2:5
4. Bereishit Rabbah 82:10 &J. Shekalim 2:7/47a
5. B. Megillah 29a; Shulchan Aruch, Yorei De’ah 364:1, 368
6. Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah #246
7. ‘Bal tashchit’, Devarim20:19-20
8. J. Kilayim 9:3 and parallels; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah362
9. Such as an ‘ecopod’.
Paul Freedman is Rabbi of Radlett and Bushey Reform Synagogogue. Laura Janner-Klausner is Rabbi at the North Western Reform Synagogue.
December 2006 / Kislev 5767