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Melanie Levav
Melanie Levav
Founding executive director, Shomer Collective

Aquamation, Judaism, and the Environment

Source: istock/NikolayEvsyukov

“What is aquamation? The green alternative to cremation chosen by Desmond Tutu,” read the headline on cnn.com in the days following the announcement that Tutu, prominent anti-apartheid activist and theologian, died on December 26, 2021 at the age of 90. Tutu chose to have his body treated with alkaline hydrolysis, a relatively new method of “body disposition,” now legal in 20 states in the US, with legislation pending in several more. Aquamation uses a chemical compound, pressure, and warm water to liquify flesh in a matter of hours, leaving bones that can be ground into ashes or buried. Tutu cited climate change concerns as the reason for his choice of aquamation, opting for a plain pine casket to hold his body during the funeral ceremony prior to aquamation. How might this new “green” approach to returning bodies to the earth be viewed through the lens of Jewish wisdom?

Genesis 3:19 states, “you will return to the ground, for from it were you taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return.” This remains the quintessential method of how we treat bodies according to Jewish traditions. In Deuteronomy 21:23, we read, “If a man is… put to death… you must bury him the same day.” Based on this law found in Torah, Jewish burials have traditionally taken place as soon as possible after death. 

Traditional Jewish burial practices are already considered quite “green.” Following the ritual washing of the body by members of the hevra kadisha, the sacred burial society, the body is traditionally wrapped in a simple linen shroud before being placed in an unadorned wooden casket. It is then buried in a grave, where decomposition can take place in a matter of months. The use of ornate caskets with non-biodegradable materials and embalming are not in line with the already “green” nature of traditional Jewish burial practices.

Thanks to the work of Dayenu, Hazon, other organizations, and events like the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest taking place online this week in connection with Tu Bishvat, with greater attention being paid to the climate crisis in the Jewish community, we might wonder whether traditional Jewish burial practices are the best option for the environment. Land use is often cited as a concern among those seeking the greenest practices possible, with older cemeteries in urban areas in the United States running out of space. Indeed, in Israel, where land is at a premium, it is common to bury bodies above ground in concrete vaults, or in extra-deep plots in the ground that can hold more than one body, burying one on top of another.  

And yet, given the severity of the climate crisis, are Jewish burial practices sufficiently “green,” if we prioritize taking care of the earth as a Jewish value? Aquamation is now legal in 20 states and counting. Natural organic reduction, legal in three states, with pending legislation in at least five more, is the equivalent of body composting, in which the body is placed in a climate controlled environment in a body-sized pod layered with organic material to promote the decomposition in about 30 days, a much shorter time than decomposition through traditional burial. 

Another question we might ask is whether aquamation and natural organic reduction are consonant with the Jewish obligation of “kavod ha-met,” or respect for the dead. Respect for the dead is an obligation that takes priority over other commandments, such as listening to the megillah on the holiday of Purim. Taking care of the deceased is an obligation known as “hesed shel emet,” or the most truthful of kindnesses, as the act of washing and preparing a body for burial is a favor that can never be repaid by the deceased. If aquamation and natural organic reduction treat the body with the highest levels of respect possible and merely create the remains faster than decomposition in a traditional Jewish burial, should these new technologies be seen as “kosher,” according to Jewish law and practice?

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky authored an halachic paper on the subject in 2017 for the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, more than two years ahead of natural organic reduction first being legalized in 2019 in Washington state. Rabbi Seth Goldstein authored a blog post on the subject, motivated by being a congregational rabbi in a state where natural organic reduction is legal. Jewish legal questions about how to treat bodily remains following aquamation or natural organic reduction focus on whether the remains can be used in a way that might be seen as having further benefit, as in using human compost to fertilize a food-bearing garden. (Spoiler alert: no.) Some advocate for burying aquamated or naturally reduced remains in a Jewish cemetery, accompanied by Jewish rituals, not unlike the increasingly common practice of burying cremains in a Jewish cemetery while using a smaller amount of land. Greater attention to new methods of body disposition is warranted in Jewish communities, as increasing numbers of states legalize these new technologies, which will certainly lead to increasing numbers of people wanting to know if this is in line with Jewish traditions before availing themselves of the options. 

Desmond Tutu’s choice to prioritize the environment in making plans for his body after his death can serve as a prompt to us to learn from his example in setting our intentions for how we want our bodies to be treated after we die. Whether we make plans for traditionally “green” Jewish burial practices or consider newer alternatives, the lesson is clear: considering our end can help us commit to living more fully in the present, doing our part to be intentional about our impact on the earth in both life and in death.

About the Author
Rabbi Melanie Levav is the founding Executive Director of the Shomer Collective, powered by Natan, a new initiative designed to empower individuals, families, and institutions to improve end-of-life experiences, inspired by Jewish wisdom. Melanie is a board-certified chaplain, a licensed social worker, and a rabbi with more than two decades of leadership experience in the American Jewish community.
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