When we hear the words death and burial, we don’t usually think of “green” or “natural,” but these four words are becoming linked more often these days. To many of us — both religiously observant Jews and secular humanistic Jews — these words bring a measure of hope and consideration to our endangered planet, even here in the United States.
Many centuries ago, while our ancestors were wandering the arid lands on the other side of the earth, others were hiking through heavily forested stands of trees or trying to comprehend the symbolism and purpose of huge stands of stone and rock in various parts of their ever-expanding world.
When their loved ones died from illness, old age, or as a result of wounds from battles with other wanderers or other nations, shallow graves were dug and marked with stones and rocks as a signal that a once-living human body lay underneath the soil or sand, and care should be taken to leave the space intact as a token of respect.
Centuries ago our planet’s population hadn’t yet made much of a dent on the earth’s landscape, so there wasn’t a pressing need for conservation of crop-producing land, forests, pure water and clean air. No one stumbled over rows of upright headstones as monuments to the dead, no burial plots marked off with linked chains. Nowhere to be found were the now-ubiquitous perfect plastic flowers or live plants blooming in cellophane-wrapped plastic pots.
Most of us understand we are at a crossroads with regard to the survival of this planet and its people. We’ve reached the point where we must re-examine our closely held and all-too-often selfish customs that now negatively affect the air we must breathe and the water we must drink. Now is the time for us to look back and make some thoughtful changes before we plunge ahead into the future.
A good place to begin — since our aging population soon will outnumber our “young” population — is with our current end-of-life customs: Death and burial, the disposal of our lifeless bodies.
My personal feelings about this modern dilemma are that if more people — including Jews — learned more about planet-healthy end-of-life decisions and engaged in open-minded discussions with their families and friends — and with each other — we’d be on our way to making this planet a healthier place for us and for our descendants to live.
Here’s a conversation starter for you to get discussions going: What does a natural burial mean to you? To your adult children? To your parents? To your siblings? To your aunts, uncles, cousins? To your friends and neighbors? To your local mortuary, funeral home or parlor, or cemetery?
Before you begin these conversations, check your dictionaries, use the “Google tab” on your computer, or go to your library to get yourself up-to-date regarding these terms. Look for and read the following: Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris (Scribner 2007); Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, (Collins, a special imprint of Harper Collins, 2006). These books provide lots of food for thought and discussion about planet-friendly approaches to caring for deceased loved ones — and how you might want to be cared for when it’s your turn to die.
As for me, I’ve left clear and concise instructions for who I want to sit vigil with me before, during and after I die (members of my family and my friends); who I want to care for my body immediately after I die (members of my family and my friends rather than strangers — much more emotionally and psychologically healthy for those left to mourn), and how I want my remains to be disposed of: No embalming, wrapped in a simple shroud and placed directly into the ground. In other words, a “green/natural” burial.
There will be no cement grave liners, no outrageously expensive metal casket that would take many years to decompose.
Such burial sites are hard to find in the state of Washington. In fact, there is only one “green” burial site west of the Cascades, and not more than a handful throughout the rest of the country. It’s called The Meadow and it’s located in Ferndale, near Bellingham.
Many books are available on the topics of death and dying, prayers for the dead, and rituals for the mourners. Unfortunately, these books lack information, comforting words and rituals for secular humanistic Jews, although information and assistance may be available through a search of the Society for Humanistic Judaism Web site or the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations’ Web site. Or, better yet, simply contact the Secular Jewish Circle in Seattle at 206-528-5244.