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Natural burials in the British Jewish community - a response from Michael Jarvis of the Natural Death Centre

Gen.3:19 says " In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.".  Pretty clear, that, and therein lies a major argument for burial and against cremation across the Judaeo/Christian world.

Roughly 600,000 people die in the UK each year, and about 70% are then cremated. There are niche areas of body disposal such as burial at sea, and burial on private land, but the incidence is slight, so somewhere in the region of 180,000 people are buried in the UK each year. Does this mean that there is little to be decided about how our bodies are dealt with after our death? Is it just a straight choice between burial and cremation?

Well, it isn't. Cremation is not an option for some people on religious grounds, but that doesn't mean that they have no choice. The fastest growing method of body disposal in the UK over the last dozen years has been natural burial and it is an option which marries well with certain religious and ecological beliefs.

Natural Burial - The Background

At its simplest, natural burial involves the burial of an unembalmed body, in a biodegradable coffin or shroud, in an area where trees and/or wild flowers are living memorials rather than manmade ones. The purpose is straightforward: cremation, even for those to whom it is acceptable on religious grounds, brings with it a burden of toxic emissions, especially of mercury; traditional cemeteries are expensive in terms of land use with their miles of roads and other infrastructures, and in any event render the land sterile with their granite and carrara marble headstones and effigies. Neither of those options is beneficial to the environment, whereas natural burial offers simple uncluttered areas where native species, both flora and fauna, can thrive, rather than struggle to survive.

Natural Burial - The Appeal

An increasing number of deaths concern the 'baby boomer' generation, those born between the years of 1946 and 1964; they are burying their parents, sometimes their partners, and an increasing number are contemplating their own mortality. These are members of the very generation who, as a large-scale group, first addressed the question of environmentally-friendly issues with any seriousness. They have assiduously re-cycled all sorts of materials, and sought to lead responsible lives when it comes to ecological issues. For them, does death mean that those principles should be abandoned ? Of course not, far from it, they want their environmental ethos to be carried over into their funeral provision.

The first natural burial ground in the UK was opened thirteen years ago. It was an enterprising and innovative move by Carlisle City Council. Since then the movement has expanded at an astonishing pace. There are now 214 such sites open around the country, with many more in the planning stages. This rate of expansion is clearly driven by public demand, and those who make the provision include local authorities, charities, non-profit organisations, specialist companies and diversifying landowners.

The appeal is wider, though, than being purely and simply based on ecological imperatives. Can we relate this to the Jewish tradition ?

Natural Burial - and Jewish Tradition


I am writing here as a contributor to the Natural Death Handbook, and as Administrator of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds. I have a considerable knowledge of natural burial grounds and natural burial practices, but I am a gentile, addressing what will be a largely Jewish audience. If any errors creep into my attempt at understanding Jewish traditions, those are mine alone and are not attributable to Jewish friends with whom I have spoken on these matters.

The Jewish tradition with regard to burial is focused on simplicity, equality, and speed. Ostentatious pomp is eschewed. None of this militates against natural burial. Indeed, natural burial fully embraces some such factors. Insofar as we may apply this to coffins, then the biodegradable coffins required by natural burial grounds are ideal. They are simple, are readily available and a selection of them are wooden (if that is deemed essential) some being available in untreated pine, bamboo, or willow. The issue of equality is well-served by natural burial's memorialisation by means of living trees and plants. At many natural burial grounds it is possible to purchase a plot pre-need, and then the matter of speed becomes no more than arranging to dig, or have the grave dug, much as it would be in any other burial place.

The question of speed does, however lead me on to a wider point. I understand that in some Jewish circles the desirability of a short space of time elapsing between the time of death and the time of burial is ascribed to the notion that for it to be longer would be humiliating to the dead, and thus distressing to the relatives. I may be straying from the natural burial argument slightly here, but I would have thought that the original concern that was the imperative for speed had to do with hygiene, a concern that would no longer be material with widely-available refrigeration. Also, if a little more time elapses between death and the funeral, it would be likely to make it easier for the bereaved to arrange to attend the funeral, especially if they had any distance to travel. Such attendance can be very beneficial in the grieving process, and that leads me to the next consideration in favour of natural burial, after-death traditions and the funeral ceremony itself:

With the exception of strongly Orthodox practices, ritual seems to evolve, where it can, to preserve faith and to embrace and adopt local cultural values at the same time. We see the tradition of the hevra kadisha being carried out not exclusively by dedicated volunteers, but ritual washing of the body carried out by family members, for example. Again this can be an example of beneficial value as part of the grieving process. The Natural Death Centre feels strongly that where practical and practicable, the bereaved who do wish to be involved with some hands-on elements of looking after the body and dealing with the funeral arrangements will find such activities therapeutic.

Natural burial is seen by many as being well-suited to secular funerals. Whilst this is true, it is in some ways unfortunate that emphasis is placed upon it as it distracts attention from the fact that natural burial is equally suited to religious funerals. The first mainstream religious group to become involved with natural burial as providers were the Church of England. They did this by opening a site in Cambridgeshire under the auspices of the Diocese of Ely [The Arbory Trust - see the article by Deryn Coe on this website [insert link]]. It is a success story, and they are now looking to open more in other parts of the country. One of the main reasons why secularism is cited as being well served by natural burial is the opportunity that natural burial grounds provide for unhurried, reflective and personalised ceremonies. Quite clearly that very real advantage applies just as well to religious events, where it is appropriate to the beliefs and traditions concerned. With regard to all funerals, be they secular or religious, there is benefit to the bereaved if they are structured in such a way as to give time for reflection and a dignified space for remembrance. Natural burial is an opportunity which should, I feel be considered by all.

Natural Burial - the Way Forward


These then are the main considerations: cremation is unacceptable to some on religious grounds. An increasing number of other people are becoming aware of the environmental hazards which are at present part of the cremation process. Traditional cemeteries are almost invariably becoming overcrowded, and in any case are an expensive use of land; they provide burial space but they do nothing positive for the environment. We should not pretend that natural burial is a panacea for all the present body disposal problems that we have in the UK. The very fact that 70% are cremated is indicative that it is the choice of many. Of course there will be others who will wish to be buried in cemeteries where there is an existing arrangement or family connection.

The Natural Death Centre believes that people should have freedom of choice in these matters, but of course freedom of choice is best exercised through knowledge of all the options. Natural burial is a realistic and practical option as long as the provision can be made reasonably close to the community that it serves so that its use does not involve lengthy travel which would burn fossil fuels and thus negate a lot of the benefits.

Natural burial grounds, however, give the opportunity for tranquil, aesthetically pleasing interment areas with the added bonus of  regenerating and resuscitating the land so used, so that it provides a 'green lung' for the local community. I am happy to have been asked to contribute this introductory paper, and I hope that it provokes keen interest and a lively debate.

August 2, 2006


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