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Ask the Rabbi

Posted on 05 September 2008 by admin

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

Dear Rabbi,

A company called Natural Burial of Portland, Ore., is selling “a variety of eco-friendly, biodegradable burial products including Ecopod, a kayak-shaped coffin made out of recycled newspapers,” according to the newspaper story. They will also offer “fair-trade bamboo caskets lined w/bleached cotton” and “more traditional-looking handcrafted coffins made of wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.” Prices of the biodegradable containers start at about $100 for a basic cardboard box. “Biodegradable coffins are part of a larger trend toward ‘natural’ burials, which require no formaldehyde embalming, cement vaults, chemical lawn treatments or laminated caskets,” the article also says. This all sounds very Jewish to me (for different basic reasons, of course); I’d like to know if a traditional burial would be kosher in a cardboard box or recycled newspaper coffin — since both cardboard and newspaper are basically made of wood to start with. Or might there be other elements in them to render such things unkosher?

Fred G.

Dear Fred,

I’m sure you’re dying to hear the answer to this question (no pun intended, of course).

In principle, I see nothing wrong with these coffins. The Code of Jewish Law (Y.D. 362:1) deems burial in a coffin altogether as only the second-best mode of burial. Ideally, he rules, one should be buried without a coffin at all, rather be put directly into the earth. This is, in fact, the custom of some of the most stringent burial societies in Israel, especially in Jerusalem where the custom is most prevalent. Based upon this concept, Jewish law prohibits the use of coffins made of metal, concrete or other impervious metals, as they prevent the body from being “returned to the earth.”

Based upon this, I would agree with you that biodegradable coffins would be a very Jewish way to go.

Upon viewing their Web site, however, I have some hesitations about these coffins. The company’s reason for the biodegradable coffins is to do the least possible to “upset nature.” It’s all about being green, and leaving the world without leaving a mark. Most of those who use these coffins also leave no headstone or any other mark which would upset the natural surroundings they chose to be buried in. That’s part of why they’re made in the shape of a kayak, and painted with beautiful, natural colors, decorated with suns and other signs of nature.

This differs greatly from the Jewish reason to be buried in the ground, which is to fulfill the verse “…for you are dust, and to dust shall you return” (Beresheet/Genesis 3:19). That was said after the sin of the forbidden fruit, when the decree of death was first uttered. From the time of the sin, Adam fell from his lofty, spiritual state. Like the poison of a snakebite, the evil of the snake was circulated throughout the body of the first man upon taking the snake’s advice to eat the fruit. The body, now permeated with evil, needs to decompose in order to eradicate any trace of that evil, and be rebuilt in its former glory after the “revival of the dead.” For this reason the body is meant to be returned to the earth and allowed to decompose and rejoin the earth as quickly as possible.

Conversely, we are of the belief that every human being is unique, and leaves an indelible impression on the world he lived in. That is one reason that graves have markers. This is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of the Natural Burial Company, reflected in the style of their coffins. No Jew should leave the world without making a positive mark, and having a place to be remembered!

Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at yfried@sbcglobal.net.

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