Jewish law forbids human composting, but for some Jews it’s the way to go
By Stewart Ain
New York could soon become the sixth state to legalize the composting of dead people, a practice prohibited by Jewish law, but one which a small but growing number of American Jews have come to embrace.
Axios has called it “the hot new thing in death care.” For proponents, human composting aligns with an ecological mindset that sees human beings as part of nature, obligated to care for the Earth even after they die.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has until Dec. 31 to sign a legalization bill into law. She has not yet tipped her hand on the measure, which passed both houses of the legislature easily. Several Jewish lawmakers voted for it.
Traditional Jewish burial, which calls for plain wood coffins, is considered relatively green. But human composting is touted as one of the greenest options available — there are no coffins to bury or bodies to burn.
Orthodox Jewish rabbis, however, hold that halacha, or Jewish law, clearly forbids human composting, for many of the same reasons it forbids cremation, which has overtaken traditional burial in the U.S. as the most popular option for American families after the death of a relative.
Still, Jews are beginning to consider and choose human composting, and say it can be done in keeping with their Jewish values. Recompose in Seattle is among several companies in states where the process is legal that have composted the bodies of Jewish clients. Some rabbis, from more liberal Jewish traditions, are willing to support the choice.
Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington — the first state, in 2020, to approve human composting — has not yet presided at the funeral of someone who chose to be composted. But some of his congregants have asked about it.
“It is not something I was on the front lines for,” or for cremation either, said Goldstein, who was ordained in the Reconstructionist tradition.
But Goldstein is willing to work with those who favor composting, and said he would figure out ways to incorporate Jewish ritual into the funeral rather than to turn a family away.
“Human composting seems more in line with Jewish practice than cremation in terms of the practices and values that surround it,” he added. “It is something that has a lot of environmental value.”
From dust to dust
Human composting — also called terramation and natural organic reduction — generally involves placing the deceased in a vessel, which can be cylindrical or boxlike, atop a bed of organic material — wood chips, alfalfa and sawdust are commonly used. The body is often wrapped in a cotton shroud, and air and moisture are pumped in.
Microbes found naturally in the body and the organic material take about two months to decompose it. What remains is about one cubic yard of soil and bones, which are then ground into a powder. Any medical devices or hardware is removed from the soil by hand.
Survivors can scatter the soil in a cemetery, their backyards or in a natural spot special to the deceased.
That’s what Anne Lang wanted.
“When it is my time, I would like to be composted,” she told her daughter Zoe. The Jewish woman from Boulder, who died of lymphoma in May, loved the outdoors and lived in Colorado, which legalized human composting last year.
At her mother’s deathbed, said Zoe Lang, the family said the Mourner’s Kaddish though they are not particularly observant. “It felt like something my mom would do and I wanted to honor her,” she said.
The funeral took place outside, with a view of the Flatiron rock formations. The Natural Funeral, a company not far from Boulder, took care of the composting. Two and a half months later, Anne Lang’s body was soil.
“The company asked if we wanted to pick it up and we chose to have it return to the Earth because that is what my mom would have wanted. So it was brought to a farm that grows flowers and trees,” Zoe Lang said.
The service cost the family between $7,000 and $8,000, and would have cost about $12,000 had they bought a coffin and a burial plot, Zoe Lang said.
It doesn’t bother her that she has no particular place to visit to mourn her mother.
“She is still with us,” Zoe Lang said. “I think she would be thrilled to know she is coming back as a flower or a tree with a beautiful view.”
More human composting businesses are opening as more states allow it. In addition to Washington and Colorado, it’s been legalized in Oregon, Vermont and California.
Washington has at least three such businesses — Recompose, Return Home and Earth, which promises a “carbon neutral alternative to cremation” and allows families to take a portion of the soil created from a body. It sends the rest to a land restoration project on the Olympic Peninsula.
Traditional Jewish burial forbids many common funeral practices that are also rejected by proponents of human composting.
Jewish law, for example, prohibits embalming, a process that many who favor composting consider unnatural and polluting. And it shuns crypts, cement liners and other containers for the body, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, the nation’s leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.
Cremation, which some environmentalists object to for the pollutants it produces, is also forbidden under Jewish law, which requires specific steps after a person dies that include the washing and quick burial of the body. In Orthodox tradition, cremation is a defilement.
But composting is similarly problematic, according to Shafran. “The idea of ‘utilizing’ a body as a growth medium is anathema to the honor due to a vessel that once held a human spirit,” he said.
Or as Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, put it: “Reverence for the dead through proper burial traditions has taken place throughout the generations.” He added: “The idea of grinding the bones is at odds with Jewish law.”
The Conservative movement, which lies between more traditional Orthodox Judaism and the more liberal Reform movement, has not taken a position on human composting, said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, who leads Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan. But he has studied the issue on its behalf and concluded that making a profit from human composting does not align with Jewish tradition.
“There is a difference between returning [a body] to the Earth — which is the point — and using the soil for a business,” he said.
In general, he continued, dead bodies shouldn’t be used for tangible benefit, even if it’s not strictly commercial. That’s why, he said, “it’s dishonorable to eat fruits or pick flowers growing directly above graves, nourished partly by decomposing human flesh.”
The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., had no comment on human composting.
Goldstein, the Washington state rabbi who has fielded inquiries about human composting, is a past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, which he said not taken a position on it.
But even though he’s not an advocate, Goldstein said for some Jews, human composting dovetails nicely with their Jewish environmental values, which call them to be good stewards of the Earth. He advises other rabbis to be prepared for the conversation.
“I have to serve my people,” Goldstein said. “This is not an issue we can shy away from. It is reality and we have to deal with it.”