Recently legalized in Washington state, human composting is a new alternative to burial and cremation. How do Reconstructionists balance tradition with innovation in this case?
When I began to serve the Jewish community in the congregational rabbinate, I knew I would need to confront head-on the various issues about which the contemporary Jewish community challenges traditional Jewish practice, and that I would subsequently have to make decisions about how I could best serve my community.
Being that I root myself in Reconstructionism, my approach to Judaism and Jewish practice is a meeting between the teachings and norms of Jewish tradition and the desires, needs and values of contemporary Jews. One of these challenges relates to rituals and practices of Jewish death and mourning. We know that in-ground burial is what is traditional in Jewish practice, and cremation is frowned upon and discouraged. Nevertheless, contemporary Jews are opting for cremation. What then is our response?
I can educate about the traditional practices and offer my own reasons why burial may be traditional and preferable. And yet, people may still opt to cremate. Then the question becomes, do I participate and sanction the decision? Or do I refuse and dismiss the choice as definitively “not Jewish.”
In my rabbinate, I have chosen the former, believing that a denial of mourning ritual and Jewish expression are unnecessarily cruel and antithetical to what is needed at the time of loss. I have officiated at funerals for those who have chosen cremation and also at the inurnment of cremains. We have, in my synagogue community, offered the services of the hevra kadisha (burial society) to those who opt for cremation as well. Cremation, to me, has become a norm and valid option among the Jews that I serve.
Natural Organic Reduction is legally defined as “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” It involves placing a met (dead body) in a specially designed container with other organic material, which is then stored in a specially designed facility. After about a month, the body will have decomposed into about a cubic yard of organic material which could then, in theory, be used to nourish the earth. In Washington state, remains after natural organic reduction are treated like cremated remains and can be buried in a cemetery, distributed on private property (as in a garden) or put on public lands with permission.
Now, as my state has legalized natural organic reduction (NOR), colloquially referred to as “human composting,” I once again need to grapple with this question of how to engage with Jewish tradition vis-à-vis an alternative form of handling of human remains after death. With the newness of the option — Washington state approved it in 2019, and it only became effective May 1, 2020 of this year — I have not been immediately confronted with a member of my community opting in. And yet it is not too early to think through, especially as people may be weighing it in their planning.
This essay is meant to be less a definitive answer than a thinking through of some of the values that inform the decisions, and the opinions expressed are solely my own. And underlying this reflection is the understanding that while today we default to burial as the traditional Jewish practice, Jewish practices have varied over the centuries. I do not claim to be an expert. Rather, I am a congregational rabbi who works at the intersection of Jewish tradition and contemporary Jews with their mix of identities and value systems.
The NOR movement was born out of a desire to find a more environmental form of disposition of remains, following the green burial movement. If burial uses space and cremation uses energy, then it is reasoned there should be another way.
Environmental consciousness is an important Jewish value. It fulfills the commandment to “till and tend” the earth (Genesis 2:15). One expression of this is the commandment of bal taskhit, “do not waste,” derived from the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees during wartime, found in Deuteronomy 19:19-20.
Within the Jewish context, the distinctions are less pronounced, since much of Jewish burial is, in many ways, green burial. The “green burial” movement seems to be more in contradistinction to non-Jewish burial: embalming, fancy coffins, etc. Since the Jewish custom is to not embalm, to dress a met (dead person) in simple shrouds, to use a simple coffin (if a coffin is even used), and if possible, not use a grave liner, traditional Jewish burial already has an environmental consciousness through its goal of simplicity and equality.
But there are still issues. As an article in the Forward on June 10, 2019 following the legalization of NOR pointed out,
Proponents of traditional Jewish burial in the ground like to say that, when done without concrete grave liners and expensive caskets, it’s just another form of composting. But bodies buried six feet under decompose anaerobically, without oxygen, releasing the powerful greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere. There’s also the cost of cutting down the pine trees used for most Jewish caskets.
There is still the issue of space, however, and some who choose cremation point to the fact that with cremation, there is no wasting of “space.” Land that would hold a gravesite could then be used for other purposes or no purpose at all. Municipalities in Israel and the United States are being increasingly pressed for burial space, and eliminating grave sites can fulfill environmental goals of decreased living density, productive uses of land, etc.
But cremation has its own challenges regarding the environment. As the Forward article continues,
Cremation is much worse. It requires burning about 28 gallons of fuel — that’s a road trip from New York to Chicago in your average sedan — and releases 540 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year.
For those who argue that burial is more environmentally sound than cremation, then shouldn’t Jewish tradition embrace an even more environmentally sound practice: aerobic decomposition, which not only has limited emissions but produces a viable product that can then be used? Not only does it not waste energy or space, but creates material that can then be purposefully used to regenerate the earth.
But there are other values that challenge this thinking. As with the objection to cremation, NOR can be seen as an “unnatural” interference with and speeding up of normal decomposition and therefore violates the precept of kavod hamet (honoring the deceased).
Cremation has generally been frowned upon because of biblical precedent and the idea — espoused in the earliest of teachings of Genesis — that we return to the earth. Throughout our Jewish sources, burial is often cited as the preferred method of disposition of remains, and the simplicity of Jewish burial is meant to honor that natural process of returning to the earth.
Kavod hamet (honoring the deceased) is also invoked to honor the wishes of the deceased. Which makes for an interesting situation in which the same value is pitted against itself: Do we honor the wishes of the deceased even if it is opposition to traditional Jewish practice? Cremation is one in which I, and others, have answered yes. NOR may be another. Cremation is one in which I, and others, have answered yes. NOR may be another.[fn]There are other examples where while we try to maintain the integrity of the body for burial, some disruption is allowed. Organ donation, for example, is permitted because it fulfills the value of piku’akh nefesh — saving a life. In this case, a body is “disturbed” and not whole when buried.[/fn]
There are some issues related to kavod hamet and NOR that would need to be addressed as we move forward. To maintain bodily integrity, we would want to ensure that survivors receive the complete, not partial, remains of one’s loved one, not intermingled with anyone else. (Much as, with cremation, one receives the complete cremains of the deceased.) Also, we would want to be sure that the mechanics of the process treats the body with respect.
A third value raised regarding NOR is the traditional prohibition of deriving benefit from a dead body (asur bahana’ah), something that is in violation of traditional Jewish practice. Sources such as Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 29b) expressly prohibit the use of a body or burial-related objects like coffins for economic gain or other benefit. Cemeteries, too, are meant to be treated with reverence, and certain behaviors are proscribed.
This value is invoked as an argument against NOR, most notably in a responsum for the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky:
However, the production of usable compost raises the objection that these processes intentionally use dead bodies for tangible benefit. Even if natural soil is mutar bahana’ah (that is, the soil that is generally found in a cemetery and used for burial), it is dishonorable to eat fruits or pick flowers growing directly above graves, nourished partly by decomposing human flesh. That certainly describes Natural Organic Reduction, in which the soil produced is directly linked to the dead bodies entombed in its core … the objection seems decisive against NOR, whose central theory is to turn people’s bodies into socially, economically, agriculturally useful fertilizer which consumers could obtain.
In other words, according to this argument, while naturally occurring soil itself is permitted for beneficial use, compost that is directly a result of NOR would not be.
What strikes me is what while the first value of “not wasting” would seem to have an objective measure — we can calculate emissions, environmental impact, etc. — these other two values are purely subjective. What does it mean to “honor the dead”? Does it mean treating their body as they wanted their body to be treated? Or doing whatever one can to maintain bodily integrity regardless of desires?
And all the more so, we can posit that “benefit” is also highly subjective. What does it mean to benefit from the compost created from a body? Does benefit mean nutritionally, in which case one shouldn’t use human compost for edible gardens, but rather for other plants? Or, aesthetically — what if the compost is used on a flower bed and one looks upon the flowers. Is that deriving benefit? Or does it mean financially — that one should not be permitted to sell the flowers or plants grown using human compost, but one can use them themselves or give them away for free?
It seems we can have different understandings of what “benefit” means. And even contemporary practices that are already sanctioned can fall under this category. Most cemeteries are maintained with regular mowing and landscaping, headstones are generally subject to certain standards, and some install benches and seating areas. Is the creation of a welcoming and aesthetically pleasing burial ground a form of “deriving benefit” from the dead?
Additionally, some of the compost created from NOR would go to public lands and conservation efforts. This is less a personal benefit than a communal benefit, or even a benefit to our entire ecosystem. How could this be quantified? And how can one avoid “benefiting” from this? Overall, “benefit” strikes me as very subjective and open to interpretation, especially around death practices, as our response might come from a place of simple discomfort.[fn]There are other traditional Jewish texts exploring the idea of “benefit” and its applications to different situations. With regard to kashrut, the prohibition against deriving benefit from mixtures of meat and milk speaks about financial gain. Another text, about the personal use of consecrated Temple property (me’ilah), excludes “sound, sight, and smell” from the category of “benefit.” Babylonian Talmud, Pesakhim 26a.[/fn]
I could imagine a Jewish approach to NOR could set preferences as to how the compost is to be used to adhere more closely to Jewish tradition. There could be a stated preference for non-edible vs. edible plants, for example. And there could be a stated preference against commercial uses as opposed to personal uses. Compost could not be used for plants that would be used in Jewish ritual practice. Or, all compost should be used in public places.
In addition, I was interested to discover the following from the Recompose website, from the study done at Washington State University testing the viability of NOR: “Final material was obtained that was unrecognizable visually, chemically, or microbiologically as human remains.” Perhaps we cannot call the use of human compost “benefiting from a body” since it in no way is or like a body.
Reconstructionism demands a deep engagement with the values that underlie our Jewish practices and bringing them into dialogue with contemporary mores. As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan famously said, “the past has a vote but not a veto.” We honor Jewish tradition, but do not default to it.
Around death, Judaism clearly defaults to burial. And yet, we have seen fit to honor the deep desires of those who seek to be cremated and observe all the appropriate rituals, even burial. NOR is a new concept (even if, in a way, traditional Jewish burial will lead to the same result.) As this becomes an option, Jews will ask if the alternatives they desire because of their values are in keeping with Jewish tradition.
Environmentalism is enormously important, rooted in both our civic values and our Jewish values. As our understandings change, we may want to make different decisions, and rabbis like myself need to remember that the desire to have a nontraditional disbursal of remains and be composted is not a rejection of Jewish identity and tradition, but can davka be an embrace of it.
This reverence for the earth as God’s creation, and our relationship with it, leads me to believe that we should accept this as an option that is in keeping with Jewish values. While we may teach and recommend burial, we can find ways to honor the decisions of Jews who wish to find and mark their choices with a Jewish spiritual vocabulary. While “interfering” with the normal process of decomposition, NOR does honor the life-giving properties of the human body.
A hint to this may be found in our liturgy, specifically the Amidah.[fn]I first heard this invoked by Rabbi Natan Margalit at the OHALAH conference in January 2020. He used the text to argue for a Jewish basis for food composting, I am applying it to human composting.[/fn] The traditional second paragraph of the Amidah reads,
You are mighty forever, Adonai, You revive the dead, You are mighty to save.
You sustain the living with loving kindness, You revive the dead to life with great mercy, You support the fallen and You heal the sick; You free the captives and preserve Your faith with those asleep in the dust. Who is like You, Master of mighty deeds? Who can be compared to You, O Ruler Who causes death and restores life, and causes Your salvation to sprout. You are faithful to restore the dead to life. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who brings life to the dead.
Reconstructionism rejects the traditional Jewish theological concept of the resurrection of the dead, even going so far as to alter liturgical reference from mekhayei hametim, who gives life to the dead, to mechayei kol hai, who gives and renews life. But perhaps we can think of life after death — resurrection — in new ways. By turning our bodies to compost, we in a very real way can affect a “resurrection” of new life after death.
And indeed, the paragraph calls God the One who “causes death, restores life, and causes Your salvation to sprout.” These three actions form a sequence: death, life and salvation. And the choice of verbs is compelling as the verb used for “causing to sprout” is metzame’akh, the root of which tz-m-kh is also used to describe the growth of plants. Salvation, like plants, “sprouts,” “blooms” or “grows.” Compost is therefore a way of embracing the afterlife, of affirming that that our life has purpose after death, of acknowledging that, as I often say at funerals, “while individual lives end, life itself continues.” Resurrection is not reanimating our human form, but turning our human form into something that actively gives life.
Discussions around what to do with a body after death are intensely persona and should be done with a lot of thought and in consultation with loved ones. One should be clear in making one’s decisions known. In that way, one can be sure that their values are being enacted, not the values of another. With NOR now a very real option, the Jewish community will once again need to confront the situation where Jews are making decisions which may rub up against Jewish tradition. But if these decisions are made by Jews from a place of Jewish values and identity[fn] know some people make decisions based on cost, and I did not address that here. My hope is that would not be the driving factor, and that we are able to find a place of equity where cost is not a factor in allowing people to freely choose the manner of disposition of remains they want, regardless of finances.[/fn], then the onus is on us as rabbis to engage with them and find opportunities for meaning making.
I may or may not choose NOR for myself, but I recognize that this can be a valid choice — one that we should seek to honor with Jewish language, ritual and expression.
Addendum: Jewish ritual
Since the law has just passed, and the first facility has yet to go on line, there is still time to think about how to incorporate Jewish ritual and NOR. This is a another ripe opportunity for creative thought. In addition to the use of traditional rites such as El Maleh Rakhamim and Mourner’s Kaddish (and prior to entering a NOR facility, hevra kadisha), there are unique elements to incorporate to memorializing someone who has undergone NOR. Some initial ideas:
- Since the NOR process takes about 30 days from placement to decomposition, there is a way to incorporate the Jewish tradition of shloshim into the mourning rites.
- The text from the Amidah quoted above could be used in a ceremony.
- A section of a Jewish cemetery could be designated for NOR remains, or those remains could be used to nourish existing trees and shrubbery in a Jewish cemetery. A matzevah (grave marker) could then be installed near the tree or shrubs, or in a neutral place.
- The act of kevurah (burial) could be reinterpreted from putting dirt on a coffin to placing dirt in a flowerbed, etc.