In New York state, traditional burials can be underground or by cremation. Now there is a third option for those who want to choose a relatively new concept: natural organic reduction, also known as human composting.
The green version of burial is not considered halachically proper in a traditional Jewish funeral. For one reason, some say, when Mashiach will come, the dead will rise from their graves. Others note that organic burials are disrespectful to the deceased. If you are in a cemetery visiting a loved one where the space is tight and you have to step over another grave to get to your loved ones, you’re supposed to apologize to the deceased for disturbing their final resting place.
And for some observant Jews, organic burial brings back memories of darker days of 1940s Europe.
In Ezekial chapter 37, the episode of the Valley of Dry Bones focuses on “his prophecy of the atzamos yeveishos, translated in English to mean the dry bones coming back to life. This is just another more modern form of cremation anathema to Jewish law. Weren’t six million Jews killed during World War II enough? Must we imitate the Nazis in our zeal for a green world?,” said Rabbi Yaakov Klass, presidium chairman of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and Torah editor of The Jewish Press. “One of G-d’s names is Shadai, meaning that He has provided great sufficiency in His world. To believe otherwise is absolute kefirah [apostasy]. We revere the burial places of the deceased because we believe in the resurrection. May it come speedily in our days.”
Many religious leaders have not heard of organic burials in New York state. When the bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D – Scarsdale, Westchester County), a reform Jew, and Queens Democrat Senator Leroy Comrie, passed the bill in both houses with minimal opposition, Governor Kathy Hochul signed the measure into law on December 30 last year. The bill needed to be tweaked, so an amendment to the law was passed in January of this year. Last month, natural organic reduction burials were permitted in the state.
“Just like the deceased would be below ground to decompose, the remains from natural organic reduction, which looks like compost, could be buried, it could be spread,” Paulin told The Jewish Press. “It takes about four to five weeks. Without all that formaldehyde on the body, which is bad for the environment anyway, it’s four or five weeks.”
Only the Catholic Conference of New York objected to this measure. Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union remained silent on the matter because it simply added another option for those who wanted to take advantage of green burials. Of the five observant Jews in the legislature, Queens Assembly Democrats David Weprin and Daniel Rosenthal voted in favor of the measure. Assemblymen Ari Brown, a Cedarhurst Republican, Simcha Eichenstein, a Boro Park Democrat, and Senator Simcha Felder, a Midwood Democrat, each cast negative votes.
“I have some sad news to break to most of those rabbis and priests: their flock is already doing it,” said Katey Houston, services manager at Return Home in Puyallup, Washington. “They need to either catch up with the idea or be prepared to lose some of their flock. You should just be able to choose how you want to take care of your dead. It is a much more eco-friendly option in comparison to burial and cremation. It’s a gentle alternative to the other two methods of burial.”
Return Home was started by Micah Truman, who is Jewish, and his mother Lexi. Truman is the chief executive officer of the company.
“The traditional Jewish burial already has it on lockdown like they’re already doing what they can for the planet,” said Houston. “Here’s the thing with Jewish burial. They already have it spot on. They’re already going directly into the ground in just a pine box. They’re already doing what we’re doing on a slower timeline. If you have access to that kind of burial, go for it. You’re already doing the best that you can for the planet. Our service is for those who either cannot access that or it’s too expensive for them to access that. For myself, personally, I love the idea of what we call green burial. We basically have a way to go back to the earth with the bugs.”
Burials among non-Jews vary a great deal and generally are not eco-friendly.
“The impact of a traditional Jewish burial versus what non-Jewish Americans consider a traditional burial are vastly different. For the most part, the Jewish services that I’ve worked at there have been plain pine boxes; there’s no metal or anything in them,” Houston told The Jewish Press. “Other than the carbon footprint of harvesting that wood and building the casket, it’s minimal compared to a traditional American burial where the person is embalmed and it could be a metal casket or at least a wood casket with a lot of metal accoutrement and then they’re in a vault in the ground so they never truly go back to the earth.”
Houston said her biggest challenge is educating individuals and funeral home owners about the process and dissuading them from the notion that “we’re just piling bodies on a compost heap, where it’s far from that. It’s important to me that people understand the details of the process so their imagination is not creating something that is way worse than it actually is. We want to be completely transparent about our process so that people can understand and make an educated decision for themselves.”
Here’s how the process works.
“It’s an individual vessel system that’s carefully monitored to allow the body to make its natural transformation in the soil. The person goes into the vessel with alfalfa, straw and sawdust and there’s a reason for each of those ingredients,” Houston explained.
“Straw insulates the vessel. Alfalfa is nitrogen-rich, so it can feed the microorganisms that can turn you back into soil. The sawdust absorbs moisture that the body lets out. The body goes into a vessel with those organic mixtures and we don’t push air into the vessel. We slowly suck air out gently at the top. It’s about a fifth of a hair dryer on its lowest setting, so it’s just a trickle of air just to make sure air keeps flowing through the vessel. We don’t want the process to go anaerobic because that’s when you start getting methane and we don’t want that. We want to keep air going gently through that vessel. The vessel will pull in the air that needs to keep itself going. Our vessels only get rotated one time,” said Houston.
“When you’re putting that person in at the beginning of the process, for every pound of body weight, you’re putting in two to three pounds of that straw and alfalfa mixture, because you need the body to keep the sawdust around it so it can insulate and feed the microbes that are doing the decomposition process.”
The process takes 60 days and is broken into two 30-day phases.
“At the end of phase one we open up that vessel and the person has completely disappeared, there is bone that remains and anything that is inorganic so if the person had a hip replacement, a stent or a screw, that’s just there in the soil and we can take it out and that metal is recycled. The bone that remains is broken down in a machine and made into big shards that are then reincorporated into the compost.
“For the second 30 days, while the compost is resting and cooling down, the microbes can completely consume that bone. They just needed to get inside the porous section of the bone. They can’t get through that hard outer layer. We just break the bone into pieces of shards with a machine.
“At the end of our process the family gets back around 250 pounds of soil or a cubic yard. That’s a lot of soil that can plant a lot of trees. I have one family that will be picking up their loved one in a couple of weeks and will be placing their loved one at a salmon spawning area and they are going to plant 1500 trees with her soil.”
The process after the body organically decomposes is up to the family members.
“You can’t see the deceased, it’s not identifiable but the nutrients her body gave decomposing is now in that soil and is technically compost that is nutrient-rich. You just can’t plant a tree and a whole lot of the soil because it is too nutrient-rich. You have to mix it with regular soil.”
Even though there is a law on the books in New York to allow for this third type of burial it may not be possible for organic burial operations to be set up in the state. The measure did not go far enough. In New York a funeral home cannot own and operate a cemetery.
“Our model has the funeral home and natural organic reduction facility all in one. Whereas current New York law says that you have to be a cemetery to operate a natural organic reduction facility. In order to be a cemetery, you have to be a not-for-profit corporation and on at least 28 acres of land which makes it not an option for us to operate under those rules,” Houston said. “There is nowhere we could afford and buy 28 acres of land for the most part because this is an urban option. This is for the people like in Manhattan who don’t have access to green burial as easily or as inexpensively. For us we would need to be somewhere fairly urban. Also, we can’t rely on other funeral homes to fill this service because for the most part they don’t understand it and they don’t care to. We need our own funeral homes so we can take care of our families from start to finish.”
The operators of Brooklyn’s 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery, founded 185 years ago, with more than 600,000 permanent residents and 7,000 trees. It is generally considered a Christian burial place for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of good repute. The cemetery is located in the western part of Brooklyn spanning six neighborhoods, including Boro Park. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006 by the Department of the Interior.
“Green-Wood Cemetery is interested in offering the option,” Houston revealed. “There are some rule changes in the works already to make it so that you don’t have to be a cemetery and literally just changing that would be amazing for us. We would want a bill to allow that you can be a funeral home and a natural organic reduction facility. We’re hopeful the changes will come about in the next few years. It’s been beautiful that there’s something inside everyone that they want to return to the earth and this has been a place for them to come together in one community facility.”