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Natural burials in the British Jewish community - a response from Rabbi Jeremy Rosen.

Ancient burial laws in the Middle East were very complex. We are familiar with Egyptian pyramids and mummies. Their burial customs, together with the Hittites offered a form of transition for the upper classes and the priesthood to the after life. Poor commoners however were simply left for the god Sheol (Biblical Hebrew for ‘grave’) to consume the flesh before the bones were handed over to the god Mot (Hebrew for ‘death’) who was given the bones that were then gathered up and dumped into ossuaries. The bible refers to the ‘Fathers’ as ‘becoming corpses, dying and then being gathered to their people’ (Genesis 25).

Perhaps as a reaction to this and an assertion of the immediacy and priority of life, there are hardly any biblical laws about burials or indeed about mourning. Most of the complex rules we have nowadays are very late Talmudic and medieval. But I suppose you could say that Moses had the first natural burial, no grave, no human administered rites, just as with Aaron ( Numbers 20.29 ) a period of mourning of thirty days ( Deuteronomy 34.8). And of course there was Abraham burying Sarah in the Cave of Machpela.

Over the years different communities have developed their own customs. So for example in Israel bodies are buried straight into the ground whereas in the diaspora they are usually buried in coffins. A part of the reason is local legislation and part the mystical nature of the land of Israel.  According to Jewish law the body is regarded as holy, the vehicle of divine worship, the receptacle of the soul. That is why the dead body is treated with such reverence and must be buried whole. Even limbs and blood need to be buried. Only the needs of the living, saving or augmenting human life, override this. That is why cremation is not acceptable within the framework of Jewish law.

Burial grounds, while considered to be holy ground and to be treated with reverence, are not regarded in quite the same way as Western burial grounds. The bareness, the minimalist nature of orthodox burial grounds is a conscious rebuttal of emphasising the needs of the dead over those of the living. Most rabbinic authorities urge one to spend more on the living than spending money on mausoleums or tributes to the dead.

Dead scholars and saints (one needs to qualify this by saying that this only applies with reference to Torah) are worshipped as great souls. The graves of saintly or important rabbis are visited, particularly before Yom Kippur. But that is primarily to try in mystical terms to harness their spiritual connections for the sake of the living. It is life in the present that is the testing ground and the means of achieving spiritual continuity. It also functions as a reminder of our frailty both physical and moral in comparison and of course, mortality.

Natural burials are a new form of burial that both tries to escape the drabness of formal burial sites and to establish a natural setting and connection between the past and the future, by integrating death into the natural process. In its rejection of grandiose but artificial cemeteries it might be seen as having a rightful place within Judaism and offering a serious alternative. The question is whether it is legal either in civil terms or Jewish ones.

Actually my father Kopul Rosen zl had a sort of natural burial in the grounds of Carmel College, the school he founded on the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire. When he died in 1962, permission was granted by the local authorities to bury him in the grounds of the school. Then ground was set aside and consecrated in the Ashkenazi tradition of circling it seven times (recalling King Solomon’s dedication of the temple). Only after that ceremony was he buried in the grounds he loved. Sadly, 35 years later, the school was sold and his remains were transferred to the Mount of Olives in Israel. I also lost an infant son while I was headmaster at Carmel and he too was buried in this consecrated ground. His remains were later transferred as well. But to enable the burials, two conditions had to be met, civil and religious.

This is not the place to go into the issue of whether and under what circumstances one may move a buried body. Assuming all the permits have been received, the Jewish religious requirement is that graves and the ground around them are treated with reverence and must be demarcated, in particular so that Cohanim, who have to be careful about avoiding contact with dead bodies, know where to avoid. This also includes trees that overhang a grave. But if the grave is marked and the area demarcated it is only a matter of whether the civil authorities approve. Otherwise from a strictly Jewish point of view there is no need for a coffin, no need for a fancy tombstone, no need for a traditional cemetery.

But then there are other kinds of issues, rather more a cultural ones.  It is a long established tradition to visit graves, particularly near to the High Holy Days. Easy access to burial grounds therefore is an important factor and might, I guess militate against a burial ground in, say, the Outer Hebrides. 

Sadly the one objection I think most likely in Orthodox circles is that the very concept as it is currently being conveyed is that this movement is an ecological one grounded in ideologies that are not spiritual ones. Its not that ecology is not an essential element in both biblical and Talmudic Judaism, it’s just that in the current defensive, inward looking environment, in which issue of survival and external antagonisms loom large in rabbinic thinking, the association of ecology with people who are so strongly opposed to Israel that it verges on the anti-Semitic inevitably creates a sympathy barrier in the Orthodox world, which anyway has been ideologically opposed to change of any kind ever since the years of the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) the great rabbi of Bratislava, responded to the Enlightenment by declaring any new idea, forbidden. This attitude nowadays is a shame. Conceptually, natural burial is indeed totally in sympathy with a Jewish world outlook that everything comes from God. We come from the ‘dust’ and we return to the dust and life is a constant cycle of birth death and rebirth. The natural cycle is God’s cycle and we humans have to do our bit to preserve those parts we have some measure of control over. Besides a reverence of nature can be an appreciation of God’s world. To visit a grave in woodlands can be comforting, soothing and affirmative of the importance of all forms of life. More importantly it removes the association of burial grounds with Churches and other houses of worship. Sadly in the past it was only the wealthy who had the grounds to facilitate this sort of private rural burial. Now that it is becoming more readily accessible to ordinary people, so long as the halachic requirements are met, I can think of no serious objection.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen graduated in Philosophy at Cambridge University and from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is an Orthodox Rabbi, a former Headmaster and Academic, now a traveling cyber rabbi at http://www.jeremyrosen.com/

October 2006  

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