At a meeting of Jewish artists recently I was asked whether we had a hevra kadisha (holy burial society) in the state. I mentioned that there were several. The questioner wanted to know why this wasn’t announced somewhere. I hesitated to answer because it’s a touchy subject and those of us who are involved are not really supposed to discuss it.
Meanwhile I have noticed recent newspaper articles about “green burials” and also about the Muslim burial rites clashing with Connecticut laws. It would seem that the Muslim rites are very similar to the Jewish rites – burial within 24 hours, washing the body, wrapping it in a special cloth. Since the state of Connecticut won’t allow burial without a casket or vault (burial liner) if the cemetery resides within 350 feet of homes, the Muslims are being flexible and respecting the laws of the land. They also put some soil in the coffin or vault so that the body is in touch with the earth in accordance with Islamic law. Jews who are not being buried in Israel frequently have dirt from Israel placed in the coffin as well.
Green burials seem to be catching on as people become concerned about the environment and the costs associated with the average traditional funeral ($6,500 according to the National Funeral Directors Association) plus the cemetery costs. Cremations are also increasing.
As Jews we have choices in our state. We can have a funeral director guide us, or we can use our own traditions for guidance. Our traditions are already “green” – no chemical preservatives, no metal casket, and are less harmful to the environment. The hevra kadisha is divided into two groups, one for preparation of women, one for preparation of men. We are very respectful of the deceased at all times, saying prayers (both in Hebrew and English), washing, shrouding and placing the body in a wood coffin (interestingly enough the Hebrew word “Aron” is used both for the coffin and for the “Aron Kodesh” – the holy ark which holds the torah).
Another group is asked to provide a “shomer” (watcher, guard) at all times until the coffin is buried. We usually take one to two hour shifts. It is traditional to read psalms while you are sitting with the coffin. It is not necessary for any of the people involved to actually know the deceased.
For more information, contact your local rabbi. Also, on the web, good materials can be found at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org, and other sites. Just do a search for “hevra kadisha” or “green burial” or “Muslim burial rites” – I’m sure you’ll find something interesting.