Preparing Jewish bodies for burial, an artist finds inspiration

‘I could have painted landscapes,’ says Karen Benioff Friedman. Instead, she’s portraying the rituals around death.

Angels of Mercy Embrace the Dead, 2023, oil on canvasboard.© 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

By Stewart Ain

When a Berkeley rabbi in 2004 announced that he wanted to form a chevra kadisha, Hebrew for a group that cares for the dead before burial, an artist in his congregation signed herself up.

Karen Benioff Friedman had a mostly secular upbringing, and hadn’t known much about Jewish burial societies, but she knew she wanted to be a part of one.

“What I found compelling is the idea that we never leave the dead alone,” she said.

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Thresholds: Jewish Rituals of Death and Mourning – Placing the Metah into the Casket, 2019, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Ten years later, while Friedman was studying human anatomy and classical realism at an Oakland art school, she learned of 18th century paintings of Prague’s chevra kadisha. They depicted tahara, the rituals of the burial society.

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Thresholds – Jewish Rituals of Death and Mourning – Tying the Avnet, 2023, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

As part of these rituals, bodies are placed in a white shroud before they are lowered into a casket. Coincidentally, Friedman had been painting images of shrouded figures. Seeing the Prague paintings made her think that tahara could be her subject too.

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Tahara, 2021, graphite on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

“I could have painted landscapes or pets, but this is what really moved me,” said Friedman.

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Taharah: Pouring the Second Bucket, 2017, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Since then, Friedman, now 59, has drawn, painted and etched more than 150 images of tahara, each a window into a ritual so private that many Jews have little idea what it looks like. Those who perform tahara wash the body, and sit by it through the night, reciting prayers and psalms.

In her paintings, gauzy figures, some enveloped in light, attend lovingly to the dead, cradling their heads and pouring water over their bodies. The mood is somber, despite the daubs of bright blue she often uses for the aprons of the women of the chevra kadisha.

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Thresholds, Attending Grandmother’s Passing, 2020, charcoal on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Tahara calls for men to care for men and women for women, so Friedman’s subjects are mostly female, because, she said, that is what she knows from her own participation.

Respecting tahara, which means “purification,” Friedman would never try to draw or take photographs of the deceased. But she didn’t work solely from memory either. She hired models to impersonate both the living and the dead. One model did a “pretend tahara while another pretended to be a body that was dressed in a shroud,” she said. She worked from the photographs she took of them.

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Angels of Mercy Embrace The Dead, 2019, charcoal on paper. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.


Friedman paints in oils and makes monotypes, a form of printmaking. All her drawings are in charcoal.

Many of her works depict angels. “One of the main pieces of liturgy we talk about is the one about the angels of mercy who embrace the metah — the female body,” Friedman said. “Angels come up a lot, including standing outside the gates of heaven. I love the concept of the angels.”

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Angel of Death Holding an Infant, 2022, monotype on silk. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

Ultimately, she said, she wants her works to teach about the mostly hidden work of the chevra kadisha, and its commitment to respect the dead, no matter who has died.

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Shmira (Guarding the Dead), 2019, oil on canvas. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

“We are all equal in death,” she said. “We all wear the same thing and are buried the same.”

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A Soul, 2023, monotype. © 2023 Karen Benioff Friedman.

An exhibit of Friedman’s work will open on Feb. 5 at  San Francisco’s Sinai Memorial Chapel and run through March 19.

Complete Article HERE!

8 Caring Sympathy Messages

— What To Say When There Are No Words

Words of kindness can have a powerful impact.

By Samantha Maron

When it comes to death and grief, finding the right words to express the deepest sympathy can be difficult. Loss is a natural part of life, but it often leaves us feeling adrift, unsure, and afraid of saying the wrong thing to a person going through an immensely difficult time. The truth is that every person responds to loss differently. While some grieve in private, others prefer the physical presence of friends and loved ones. Whatever the case, sending a sympathy card (even if the words aren’t perfect) to let them know they’re on your mind is important. Below are sympathy messages and words of comfort to offer in a time of need. 

Condolence Messages To Write in a Sympathy Card

There are several important things to keep in mind when writing a sympathy note. Two of these are the recipient and the circumstances. For some, the right approach is a message that will make them smile (or even laugh), and provide a brief respite from their grieving process. For others, a spiritual quote or condolence can show solidarity at a sad time that’s often accompanied by loneliness and isolation. Personalization is important, so be sure to customize your sympathy card messages for a family member or close friend according to their situation and your relationship to them. Here are ideas to get you started.

1. I’m So Sorry for Your Loss

When you’re just not sure what to say, don’t be afraid to say something simple, like “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m thinking of you in this heartbreaking time.” Writing this in your sympathy card is the clearest way to show love and support. Don’t avoid sending condolences because you’re worried about coming up with the perfect words. (Really, the only words to avoid are “I know how you feel,” which centers you instead of focusing all attention and support on the grieving person.) “I’m so sorry for your loss” can be an opening that allows your friend to share their sadness, or a simple phrase that signals caring thoughts and heartfelt sympathy.

2. I Remember When

One way to add something special to a condolence card is to share happy memories of the person who has passed. This may be a memory of a time they did or said something light and humorous, which can help to give the grieving family some joy on a difficult day. It may also be a memory of a lesson or special message they passed down to your family, like encouragement to pursue a project or support during a difficult time of your own. Memories are incredibly personal, but they also show the family that their loved one had a positive influence on people and will be well-remembered by many.

3. What an Amazing Person

There are other ways — apart from or in addition to sharing a memory — to pay homage to the person who has passed. Were they particularly caring or loving? Did they always bake something special to welcome newcomers to the office or the neighborhood? Could they make everyone laugh? Consider the impact the loved one had on those around them. By referencing specific traits or behaviors, you’re telling the grieving family that you saw the gifts their loved one shared with the world, and that you appreciated them for it. Doing this shows the aggrieved that the legacy of their loved one will live on.

4. A Spiritual Reference

For many, spiritual references are a useful way to navigate loss, especially in initial stages of grief. It’s important, however, to respect the grieving person’s faith — or lack thereof — before referencing God. Religion and spirituality are deeply personal, and referencing them may not always be appropriate. When it is appropriate, consider quoting spiritual texts or beloved hymns. Avoid messages that suggest the loss is part of a larger plan — for example, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God makes no mistakes” — as these diminish the loss by implying that it’s for a higher purpose. Instead, reference spirituality and messages of peace and love in a way that supports the grieving family by acknowledging the depth of their loss.

5. Sending Love to Your Family in a Time of Sorrow

If you didn’t know the individual who passed, but you do know members of the family, consider writing a condolence card to the grieving person rather than in memory of the deceased. This may reference their influence, such as how they raised such wonderful children, but you can avoid speaking of the deceased person entirely if you don’t feel comfortable. Simply writing heartfelt condolences to the grieving family of the deceased is often enough to show that you care without overstepping.

6. A Poem or Quote for Comfort in a Challenging Time

We don’t always have to find the perfect words ourselves. Loss is a universal experience and has been written about and spoken of in many ways throughout generations. It may be useful to share a quote or a few lines of a poem that you think your loved one will appreciate and perhaps find peace in. When it comes to poems and quotes about loss, you can tailor the writing to the specific individual you’re sharing it with. In some circumstances, it may have religious or spiritual elements. In others, it may be humorous or very serious. If the deceased or someone in the family had a particular love for one writer or singer, it might be special to share a line from them as an homage. Taking the time to pick out a quote they will really appreciate will show the family or your loved one just how much you care.

7. They Left an Impact and Fond Memories

After a loss, we often grieve the missed opportunities and moments our loved one could have shared with us before their passing. Speaking to their impact can ameliorate some of that pain. This could mean referencing the wonderful way they raised their children, speaking to their community fundraising, or sharing a time they helped you navigate a challenge. Knowing their loved one leaves a lasting legacy behind can bring great comfort to the deceased family.

8. A Promise of Help

While sympathy messages and deepest condolences are a wonderful way to support a family or coworker emotionally, logistical needs must also be met. Of all the gestures, tokens, and gift ideas, availing yourself to provide a service during a time of loss is always appreciated. This is especially true if the grieving family has elderly relatives or small children. A promise of help should be intentional and specific so that there is no undue burden on the family to pick up the phone and ask. Rather, you want to give the family the tools and resources they need to care for themselves during loss. That may be gift cards to local restaurants or maid services for the home, or even babysitting support so that they can make arrangements. Taking a few simple tasks off their mind can make a big difference.

Meaningful Messages and Sincere Condolences

When it comes to words of sympathy, there are many ways to share love and comfort at a hard time. The simple act of sending a sympathy card is a welcome show of support for the grieving family.

Depending on your relationship with the deceased and their family, you can further personalize your sympathy message by sharing loving memories, messages of love and comfort, and even quotes or song lyrics. Another way to show up for loved ones during times of loss is with the offer of support and help. Just be sure to take care of the planning so that your offer doesn’t add to their burden. Loss is never easy, but family, friends, and the right words can help us to navigate loss.

Complete Article HERE!

How Hospices Can Support Families Seeking ‘Green’ Burials

By Holly Vossel

Hospices can assist terminally ill patients and their families who have questions about “green” burial options by connecting them with services like death doulas or by educating staff on those practices.

Interest in natural or green funeral and burial options has been growing year-over-year, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). Around 60.5% of respondents in a NFDA 2022 consumer awareness and preferences survey indicated that they would be interested in exploring natural funeral options, a rise from 55.7% in 2021.

Respondents cited cost savings and potential environmental benefits as leading drivers of their interest.

Demand for natural burials also has grown among hospice patients and their families, according to Lee Webster, director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy.

“I’ve definitely seen a growing trend of natural burials really appealing to a lot of people who are on hospice,” Webster told Hospice News. “A lot of people on hospice services want to run the whole spectrum of that holistic care and tend to be more open to the idea. They are finding a different way to do the disposition, recognizing that natural burials are less expensive than the traditional funeral burial or cremation services most of the time.”

Webster has co-founded organizations such as the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance (NEDA), the Conservation Burial Alliance and the partnership. Additionally, she has served in leadership positions at the National Home Funeral Alliance and the Green Burial Council.

Natural burials are another way for families to take care of the dying in “the least invasive way possible,” according to Webster. “Much like hospice, it’s a continuum of creating a seamless transition to death” she said.

Though natural burials represent roughly 5% of all funerals nationwide, nearly three-quarters (72%) of cemetery operators have reported increased demand for these services, according to NFDA.

The global green funeral market reached $571.54 million in 2021 and is anticipated to reach an 8.7% growth rate by 2030, according to 2022 projections from Emergen Research.

As more hospices partner with death doulas, they can leverage those collaborations to help families and staff understand the four pillars that define a natural burial, Webster said. Death doulas also can help hospices connect families with natural burial resources and services.

One pillar is the use of biodegradable materials or containers that are designed to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation associated with traditional caskets made of wood, plastic and cement mixtures.

The other three pillars include the use of natural, noninvasive preservation methods instead of chemical embalming practices; avoiding the use of vaults and completing burials at 3 ½ to 4 feet.

Patients and families seeking these also need to understand state laws and limitations around natural burial methodologies.

Human composting, for example, is only legal in six states, according Lauren Carroll, co-one of the founders of Deathwives, a death doula provider. Additionally, water cremation is only available in 26 states, she added.

Death doulas can help expand hospices’ knowledge around their local natural burial options that they otherwise might not have built into their staff education and training, Carroll said.

“[The] knowledge aspect of understanding that comes from death doulas isn’t something a hospice necessarily has a place for in its staff education,” Carroll told Hospice News. “That education aspect is the biggest part of communicating all these different burial and funeral options to families so they have a better understanding.”

Hospices can help the family by preparing the necessary documentation bereaved families will need to arrange a natural burial, according to Webster.

“Each state has different requirements about when death certificates need to be filed and when families are able to bathe, dress and prepare their loved one for a natural burial,” Webster said. “Another important thing to know is that the hospice is not liable for anything that the family does with the body after they’ve signed that death certificate.”

Complete Article HERE!

Eight Green Burial Options

— Some Are Greener Than Others

Innovation and interest in green burial practices are growing fast in the U.S. fed by concerns about the environmental impact of modern burial and cremation. 60.5% of Americans are interested in eco-friendly burial choices according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Yet most people know little about their green burial options.


  • Green burial is a way to care for the dead without damaging the earth.
    Perhaps the greenest option is a simple, natural burial.
    Other green options include human body composting, tree pod burial, biodegradable urns, water cremation, Tibetan sky burial, and sea burial.
    Not all countries or states allow each option. Knowing your choices empowers you to choose a deathcare practice that matches your personal values.

What is green burial?

According to the Green Burial Council (GBC), green burials care for the dead by restoring and conserving natural resources and habitats, reducing carbon emissions, and protecting mortuary workers from embalming toxins.

As more Americans notice problems with the funeral industry, many are jumping on the green burial movement’s bandwagon.

In lacquered caskets and cement vaults, we currently bury our dead using an estimated 1.6 million tons of concrete, over 64,500 tons of steel, and four million gallons of toxic embalming fluid every year.

Meanwhile, fire cremation uses about 30 gallons of fuel to cremate one body – a deep carbon footprint.

In urban areas, cemeteries occupy precious space while urban dwellers and city planners need land for new housing.

These practices injure the earth and separate us from nature as if dead bodies poison the ground. Green burial advocates say death nourishes the earth with the right deathcare practices.

Green cemeteries certified by the GBC do not allow toxic embalming, vaults, non-biodegradable products, herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. They encourage sustainable management practices, land conservation sites, and creative and natural ways to mark graves.

Some green burial options are greener than others. Know your choices before you plan your final legacy.

Natural burial: let earth do the work

Perhaps the greenest option is a simple natural burial, a return to the way many of our ancestors were buried.

Natural burial uses only biodegradable products to bury the deceased. Families choose simple shrouds and earth-friendly caskets. You can even be buried without a casket and wrapped only in the shroud.

No cement or plastic vaults are installed into the ground for natural burials. Without vaults, holes for the deceased are shallower, about 3-4 feet deep, disrupting less soil.

Natural burial lets the earth do its genius work transforming the human body into rich, healthy soil to nourish the ground, which feeds plants and animals. A green burial saves the earth from toxins and replenishes healthy, organism-rich soil through organic decomposition.

Modern American embalming started when the bodies of Civil War soldiers were returned to their loved ones far from the battlefield. Caretakers preserved the bodies so loved ones could see them one last time.

Today, morticians embalm bodies primarily for funeral viewings, a fading practice in America. Without viewings, preserving the body is rarely needed.

For those who do want a funeral viewing, however, there are green alternatives. Bodies can be kept cold at a funeral home for days to months while waiting for a funeral. Green embalming fluids are another option. The GBC certifies four green and effective products to preserve loved ones.

If you can bury the body within 48 hours, you can usually hold a viewing without refrigeration or preservation. Some families today cleanse and prepare the bodies of their loved ones and keep them in the home for viewing and last visits from friends and family.

Today’s median cost of burials with viewing ceremonies is $7848, not including cement vaults and headstones. Green burial costs an average of $2000-$3000. Some states allow natural burials in places other than cemeteries, often lowering the cost even further.

You can also donate your body to forensic science and education. Scientists bury your body naturally in “body farms” and study the decay. For body donation, you don’t have to pay burial costs, but you may need to pay transportation costs todeliver the body.

Burial laws differ from state to state. To customize your burial as much as possible, read your state’s laws and find a local funeral home offering natural burial.

Body compost: a faster decomposition

Natural Organic Reduction (NOR), also called human composting is a new and innovative death care option. Like natural burial, it transforms the human body into rich, living soil but at a much faster rate of 30-45 days.

Washington state was the first state to legalize human body composting. Since then, Colorado, California, Vermont, and Oregon also legalized it.

The NOR process begins by wrapping the body in a biodegradable cloth and cradling it into a vessel, usually made of steel. Under and over the body is a blanket and bed of organic matter like alfalfa, wood chips, straw, and wildflowers.

For about 30-45 days, funeral staff tend to the body and vessel. During the process, the temperature inside the container reaches about 140°, creating the prime environment for microbes to transform the body into soil.

When the flesh is decomposed, bones and teeth remain. They are ground – just like cremation – and returned to the soil.

Medical devices, metal fillings, and implants also remain. Funeral staff carefully separate these items and often recycle them.

Loved ones can take home some or all of the composted soil to spread as a memorial in gardens or around trees. Some people choose to donate the soil to local land restoration projects.

The cost of composting your body is comparable to current burial costs. It can range from $3500 to $8000 depending on the company and the services rendered.

Manufacturing, distribution, and building is still required to develop composting sites. NOR doesn’t completely reduce your carbon footprint, but it’s better than current burial and cremation practices. It feeds the earth while leaving a lasting green legacy.

Tree pod burial: become a tree

In 2016, a fascinating new idea hit the deathcare industry. Two Italian designers, Adriano Del Ferro and Francesco D’Angelo, unveiled their dream of burying bodies under a tree seedling. They call the concept Capsula Mundi, a cocoon tree pod burial.

In a meaningful design reminiscent of new birth, the body is wrapped in a natural fiber shroud and placed into an egg-shaped capsule. The womb-like vessel is lowered into the ground, and a tree is planted directly over it.

As the body decays and transforms into healthy soil, it nourishes the tree. Some consider the process a physical transformation into the tree – a rebirth in the cycle of life.

The concept is still developing, but the vision is to plant the cocoons in restoration and conservation areas. Rather than visiting a tombstone, loved ones can visit the tree using GPS coordinates of the burial site.

Green critics say burial in a tree pod disturbs more earth by requiring deeper holes. In addition, even though the pod is biodegradable, manufacturing, storing, and shipping the pods increase the carbon footprint.

With such a new idea, cocoon tree pod burial cost is unknown. Del Ferro and D’Angelo estimate it will be cheaper than a traditional burial in the United States.

Biodegradable urns: ashes to trees

While we wait for tree pods to hit the market, companies offer biodegradable urns as another novel option.

Innovators designed the urns to memorialize ashes in an eco-friendly way. Scattering or burying cremated remains isn’t great for the earth. While the ashes aren’t highly toxic, they have a high pH level. This increases the alkalinity of nearby soil. Cremated remains are also high in sodium levels.

To plant the urn, the ashes are placed first in the bottom. An additive to balance pH is placed on top of the ashes. Next, the roots of a young tree are set into the urn and surrounded with planting soil. The urn is planted directly into the ground, where a living memorial grows for loved ones to visit.

Always check your state’s rules on burying cremated remains before choosing your planting site. Prices of living urns with trees vary from $100-$370.

Water cremation: a tenth of the carbon footprint

Water cremation isn’t as new as you might think. Some universities in the U.S. have used the process with donated bodies since the mid-90s. The Mayo Clinic has used the process since 2006.

Water cremation advocates say it leaves only a tenth of the carbon footprint compared to fire cremation. The body gently decomposes with water and a small amount of potassium hydroxide. Scientifically known as alkaline hydrolysis, the process takes around 16 hours.

The body is first placed into a large stainless-steel cylinder. The water solution then passes around the body at a near-boiling temperature. Some systems process the body quicker using higher temperatures up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soon the body is dissolved and transformed into a liquid of amino acids, salts, peptides, sugars, and soap. Like flame cremation and human composting, the bones are ground into a fine powder and returned as “ashes” to loved ones.

Surprisingly, the liquid is so clean and altered that the solution can safely drain into the sewer system. Alkaline hydrolysis breaks down environmental pollutants in the body like drugs and embalming fluid. Waste managers say the process even improves their systems because the liquid feeds the bacteria that decompose sewage.

Water cremation uses much less energy than fire cremation. It runs on electricity instead of fossil fuels and releases no greenhouse gases, unlike open air fire cremation which is allowed only in Colorado state as of 2022.

However, alkaline hydrolysis isn’t purely green. 80 gallons of water are used to process one body. Manufacturing, storing, and distributing the machines also leaves a carbon footprint.

In the U.S., more than 20 states allow alkaline hydrolysis as a burial option, and more than 80 machines will be in operation by the end of 2022. The cost typically starts around $2000.

Mushroom suit: not as great as it seems

In 2011, artist Jae Rhim Lee presented an alluring idea to a fascinated TED audience: a burial suit woven with fungi to hasten the decomposition process. She argued natural burial doesn’t thoroughly break down normal human toxins.

Despite the great idea, her science was unfounded. Nature’s process is brilliant at transforming the many toxins hidden in the human body before they leach into the earth.

Naturally, the body’s own bacteria are the first organisms to start decomposition. Fungi from the earth join the process later. Adding them to a burial shroud doesn’t necessarily speed up the process.

Currently, production of the $1500 mushroom suit has stopped, and whether it will start again is unknown.

Sea burial: possibly eco-friendly

Sea burial is still practiced around the globe. In 2020, 2544 sea burials were permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the sole regulator of burial at sea. However, whether sea burials are eco-friendly isn’t a highly discussed topic.

The EPA allows only biodegradable items to be used, except metal to ensure the body sinks adequately. They recommend a metal chain connected to a body or a metal casket drilled with holes for rapid sinking.

Casting metal into the sea isn’t the only questionable issue. The EPA requires bodies to be buried at least three nautical miles offshore and in waters up to 1800 feet deep for certain locations. For some, this requires a fair amount of fossil fuel to travel to an authorized site.

As for scattering cremated remains, according to the EPA, you can spread them on a non-windy day or use a biodegradable, sea-friendly urn. There is no sea depth requirement for scattering cremated remains. Still, the scattering must also take place three nautical miles offshore.

If burial at sea holds deep meaning for you and you seek earth-friendly burial options, a green sea burial is possible with a little creativity and research.

Tibetan sky burial: let the animals feast

Tibetan sky burials are not permitted in the U.S. even though they’re largely gentle to the earth.

Sky burials are practiced by Tibetan Buddhists to connect the body back to one of the four elements: Air. The bodies are laid in the open air for vultures and other animals to consume.

Traditional Tibetans believe a dead body is an empty vessel best used to nourish animals. The Tibetans call the ritual ‘jhator’, but it can also be called a bird burial or celestial burial.

Final thoughts

Green burial options are scientifically fascinating, but they’re not always as green as you may think. Still, they’re a great way to customize your burial to your beliefs, ethics, and spirituality. Personalizing your death care plans increases your peace with dying.

To leave a green legacy, first decide what provides meaning to your life now. Combine those meaningful values with your environmental concerns and apply them to your death plans. Find products and resources to match your ethics and check your state’s burial laws.

Once you’ve made your death care plans, update your advance directives and inform your loved ones and health proxy.

Complete Article HERE!

Whole Body Donation

— Give Your Body to Science

I’ll never know who she was, the woman whose preserved head I studied as an anatomy and physiology student. With deep gratitude three decades later, I still remember examining her skin layers, skull bones, and brain matter. Donating her body to medical education was courageous.


  • Whole body donation is donating a body after death to scientific research and education.
  • Bodies are used by multiple industries like medical and forensic schools, the automobile industry, museums, and the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • Once a body is donated, the use of the body is not highly regulated by the government.
  • To be sure your remains are handled respectfully, it’s essential to research trustworthy options before deciding where to donate your body.

As a final gift to the world, whole-body donation leaves a legacy of generosity and support for scientific exploration. Learn how to give your remains to science while maintaining as much personal choice and respect as possible.

Modern realities like the Covid-19 pandemic, environmental concerns, and an aging baby boomer population have generated a growing interest in useful ways to leave a legacy after you die. Organ and tissue donation from one person can help up to 75 people waiting for a transplant. Green burial options may nourish Mother Earth and reduce carbon emissions. Donating your body to scientific research helps an untold number of people, possibly for generations.

What is whole body donation?

Whole body donation is the donation of a body after death to scientific research and education. Scientists and students may study your body as a whole or dissected into parts.

Whole body donation does not include organ donation, a separate process managed by a different system. If you are an organ donor, you are not a whole-body donor unless you register with a whole-body agency.

How are bodies used for science?

Every American has likely benefited from whole body donation.

21,000 medical students graduate annually, and each spends countless hours with a cadaver that teaches how the body works. Memorial services are often held at medical schools for the donors and their loved ones.

Surgeons use human bodies and parts to train on the latest techniques. Perhaps your knee surgeon recently practiced a new procedure on a human knee. The doctor who installed your child’s cochlear implant likely did so first on a cadaver. The paramedics who took you to the hospital may have studied a cadaver in their anatomy and physiology course.

The list continues. Your car manufacturer likely designed your vehicle based on crash research with real bodies. The police department’s forensics examiner may know the likely date of murder because he or she studied decaying bodies during their training. By using cadavers to understand various traumatic injuries, the U.S. Department of Defence improves military equipment.

How whole body donation works

In general, states in the U.S. offer three common options: give your body to a university, a state agency, or a non-transplant tissue bank (NTTB).

Many universities accept direct donations and keep the bodies on campus for medical or forensics students. Some states use government agencies to manage donations for their state institutions, typically medical schools.

Most NTTBs are for-profit companies that legally sell or rent bodies and dissected parts to institutions, companies, and sometimes the military. The programs that buy or rent bodies from the NTTBs use them for training, education, and research.

As you might imagine, NTTBs are a bit controversial, as it is legal to sell donated bodies in the U.S.

Federal law says you cannot sell your own body after you die or the body of a loved one. If you donate it to research, however, the receiving agency can sell or rent your body whole or in part.

To be clear, the organ transplant system does not allow the sale of any organ or tissue donated for transplant. Whole body donation, however, does allow brokers to receive donated bodies and sell or rent them to research and educational institutions.

Feeling a little skeptical about body donation at this point? Selling and renting bodies should give anyone pause. In 2017, Reuters published a seven-part investigative series, “The Body Trade,” exposing fraud and carelessness with bodies in the whole-body industry.

But don’t give up on the idea just yet. Trustworthy and honorable institutions do exist despite the presence of some corruption. You simply need to find the right one.

How to donate your body

Your first step is to talk with your loved ones about the idea. Many institutions cremate and return bodies to family members when the research ends. This can take up to three years, which can be hard for those grieving. In the end, however, the decision is still yours to make.

Secondly, do your research. A good place to begin is the list of U.S. schools and state agencies on The Anatomical Board of the State of Florida’s website. This is an excellent way to find a local medical school. The Anatomical Board’s mission is “to manage body donor resources in a dignified, respectful and professional manner,” and to ensure health professionals are “well-educated to enhance the health and well-being of all people.”

If you want to donate to your college alma mater, it is legal to transport your body across state lines if you don’t live in the same state as the college.

To find a trustworthy for-profit tissue bank, visit the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB). The AATB is a non-profit organization that helps set standards on tissue donation. Out of many in the U.S., only eight non-transplant tissue banks are accredited by the AATB. You can find these by searching for accredited Non-Transplant Anatomical Material (NAM) on their website.

There are currently seven places to donate your body for forensics science. With a little online research, you can learn more about these “body farms” in Florida, Tennessee, Colorado, North Carolina, Illinois, and Texas, where two exist. If you’re looking for a cheaper, more natural burial option while also benefiting science, this could be perfect for you.

The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology or the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee also take skeletal donations. Both institutions use bones to study human evolution and diseases.

Once you’ve made your choice, pepper the organization with questions. Look for staff who are transparent about their practices, easy to contact, and experts in the field. If you feel they are trustworthy, read their documents carefully before registering. In the end, trust your gut. You can back out at any time.

Your next step is to register with the institution you choose. Some will allow you to request ways you’d like your body to be used for research. A few allow your loved ones to visit the research facility once your body is sent there.

After registering, it’s important to update your advance directives and inform your health proxy. Add a statement about your choice and direct your health proxy to follow the institution’s instructions.

Lastly, trust your decision. It’s admirable to give your body as an anatomical gift, and many worthy students and scientists are ready to honor your wishes.

A few facts about whole-body donation

  • Many programs pay for all or part of donation and cremation costs. Compared to other options, non-transplant tissue banks (NTTBs) tend to cover the most charges.
  • Some institutions allow you to donate your organs for transplantation before donating the rest of your body to science.
  • Depending on the research, programs may exclude donors whose bodies are very thin or who had diseases like HIV/AIDS, sepsis, or hepatitis B or C. Donors who died of physical trauma are usually excluded from donating to medical schools.
  • Military honors don’t change for veterans who donate their bodies to research. In fact, one in four donors is a veteran.
  • Most programs accept donors aged 18 and older, so there is often no upper age limit. A few programs receive children’s bodies with heartfelt gratitude and respect.
  • In the past, many religions resisted whole body donations. Today, the practice is largely supported and even encouraged.

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Jewish law forbids human composting, but for some Jews it’s the way to go

Jewish law forbids human composting, but for some Jews it’s the way to go

Before she died in May 2022, Anne Lang told her daughter Zoe Lang, right, that she wanted her remains composted.

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.

A shrouded mannequin lies near a composting vessel at Recompose, a Seatte funeral home specializing in human composting in October 2022.

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

Anne Lang

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.

A small box of soil made from human remains sits on a table at the Recompose funeral home in Seattle.

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.

A tallit atop a vessel that contains the remains of a Jewish person at Return Home, a Washington state funeral home that specializes in human composting.

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.”

Visiting Mariah Carey’s Cat’s Grave

— Reflections on Disenfranchised Grief

E.B. Bartels on the Particular Sorrow of Losing a Pet

The grave I was looking for was in a quiet back corner of the cemetery, surrounded by trees. I was grateful for the shade—it was August in Westchester County, and the place was hot. Asphalt pathways criss-crossed rows of blinding granite headstones; my black dress clung to the sweat on my back. I’d spent the afternoon walking up and down the paths of this four-acre cemetery. Bright spots of metallic pinwheels, Mylar balloons, and neon stuffed animals decorated the headstones. Flowers wilted in the summer sun.

Under the trees, weaving through the graves, I found the marker: pink granite, engraved with hearts. Clarence, it read. My eternal friend and Guardian angel. You’ll always be a part of me forever. And underneath, obscured by flowers: love, M.

I had read about Clarence. I knew he was a loyal friend, kind, affectionate, sweet. Even though he ran with a famous crowd, he didn’t seem to care about money or celebrity or power. He valued the simple things in life. I studied the dates under Clarence’s name: 19791997. Clarence was eighteen when he died— by most cemeteries’ standards, painfully young. But in this cemetery, in Hartsdale, New York, eighteen is a good, long life.

I was looking at the grave of Mariah Carey’s cat.

When we open our hearts to animals, death is the inevitable price.This was not my first celebrity pet memorial. I’ve sat at the grave of Donald Stuart, Royal Nelson, and Laddie Miller—Lizzie Borden’s Boston terriers—their headstone engraved with the phrase sleeping awhile. I visited Pet Memorial Park, in Calabasas, California, where Hopalong Cassidy’s horse, Rudolph Valentino’s and Humphrey Bogart’s dogs, Charlie Chaplin’s cat, and one of the MGM lions are buried.

I traveled to the outskirts of Paris to see Rin Tin Tin’s grave in the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques. I’ve said a prayer standing over the final resting place of America’s hero racehorse Secretariat, in Lexington, Kentucky. But every time, what impressed me more than the celebrity pet graves was all the headstones that surrounded them.

Celebrities are not alone in burying their dead pets. To the left and right of Clarence’s pink granite tombstone were hundreds of graves for other animals belonging to regular people. These memorials were no more or less lavish than the headstone Mariah had engraved for Clarence. If I hadn’t known about the telltale love, M on Clarence’s stone, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish his grave from any of the others. Celebrities, I thought, studying the two hearts flanking Clarence’s name. They’re just like us.

By the time I visited Hartsdale, I’d already had a long personal history with pet cemeteries; in fact, I went to high school next to one. My school was of the New England prep variety, with facilities better than those at many colleges, on a gorgeous green campus in Dedham, a suburb southwest of Boston. This was the sort of school that carefully curated its image, boasting of athletic alumni competing in the Olympics, generations of legacy students, high SAT scores, and extremely competitive Ivy League acceptance rates. Less present in its marketing materials: that the school is located next to several thousand dead animals, buried in the Animal Rescue League of Boston’s Pine Ridge Pet Cemetery. Pine Ridge was the first official pet cemetery I knew of, but there are more than seven hundred of them scattered throughout the country.

By the time I was fourteen and first saw Pine Ridge, I’d already loved and lost many companion animals. I also loved to read, and, frankly, young adult literature is full of dead pets. “I remember that awful dread as the number of pages shrank in each new animal book I read,” writes Helen Macdonald in her memoir H Is for Hawk. “I knew what would happen. And it happened every time.” What happens in Old Yeller? The dog dies. In Where the Red Fern Grows? Two dogs die. The Red Pony? The pony dies. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing? The turtle dies.

In this way, grieving pets is a disenfranchised grief, which can make it hard to know how to process and honor it.I could go on.

When we open our hearts to animals, death is the inevitable price. Jake Maynard, in his essay “Rattled: The Recklessness of Loving a Dog,” writes that loving an animal is “mortgaging future heartbreak against a decade or so of camaraderie.” Matthew Gilbert, in his memoir Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park, writes, “In the course of an average human lifetime, pots and pans and couches and lamps stay with us for longer stretches of time. Even beloved T-shirts survive the decades, the silk-screened album images and tour dates wrinkled and cracked but still holding on. With a dog, you’re on a fast train to heartache.”

Yet people keep getting pets. As of the writing of this, 67 percent of American households, 84.9 million homes, own “some sort of pet,” according to the American Pet Products Association. And yet, despite those millions of pet owners all over the globe, and despite the inevitable loss that comes with that relationship, the ways people grieve a dead pet aren’t always taken very seriously.

Imagine Mariah canceling a world tour due to “a death in the family.” If her mother died, of course people would understand, without question. She would get cards and flowers; fans would send encouraging, sympathetic messages. But if Mariah put off a tour to mourn for her cat Clarence? Some fans would get it, I’m sure, but she would also certainly become the butt of thousands of jokes on social media.

For every pet that’s died, the one thing they’ve had in common has been my feeling of not knowing what to do with my grief—I could do everything, anything, nothing.Fiona Apple actually did postpone her South American tour in 2012 to spend more time with her dying pit bull, Janet, publishing a handwritten note explaining her reasoning to fans on her Facebook page. (Apple would later play percussion using Janet’s bones in a song on her album Fetch the Bolt Cutters.) Thousands of fans wrote supportive messages—it seems on brand that Fiona Apple fans would get it—but there were also ugly comments the moderators had to delete. Pets don’t live very long. They’re going to die. What were you  expecting? Taking time off from work to grieve for your pet as you would for a human—some say that’s too much.

In this way, grieving pets is a disenfranchised grief, which can make it hard to know how to process and honor it; but there’s freedom in that, too. With social acceptance come social standards and expectations. The human funerals I’ve been to run together in my mind.

I grew up in an Italian Irish Catholic household in Massachusetts, so to me the death of a person meant the same open casket, the same Bible verses, the same laminated prayer cards and stiff black clothes, the same taste of funeral home Life Savers, the overpowering scent of day lilies, the post-funeral deli sandwiches. Different cultures have different traditions, but every culture typically does have its own set of mourning rituals—for humans. The rituals may feel tedious and repetitive at times, but they also offer stability and closure. There is comfort in the expectedness. Even in the “spiritual not religious” memorial services I’ve been to, I see patterns: the same large-format photos of the deceased, the same Dylan Thomas poem, the same covers of “Make You Feel My Love.”

There’s no guidebook for mourning your animal. Some people keep urns with their animals’ ashes on their mantels for decades; others bury their pets (sometimes illegally) in their yards. Some knit scarves out of their cats’ fur; others have their dogs taxidermied. Some immediately go out and get a new puppy or kitten; others vow never to love again.

Taking time off from work to grieve for your pet as you would for a human—some say that’s too much.When your pet dies, it’s possible you’ve never seen anyone else grieve for a pet. There’s a good chance you won’t have a model to follow. My family cremated one of our dogs and spread his ashes by a lighthouse; another I carried home from the vet wrapped in towels, and we buried her in our yard. I made a small cemetery behind my childhood home to entomb my birds and fish; we never acknowledged the inevitable death of the tortoise that went missing.

For every pet that’s died, the one thing they’ve had in common has been my feeling of not knowing what to do with my grief—I could do everything, anything, nothing. I often wished for an encyclopedia of options, a guidebook to help me figure out how best to honor my departed animal friends, to both grieve for and celebrate their lives. I want my book, Good Grief, to be that guide.

That August day in Hartsdale, it struck me that every animal was buried there intentionally. No pet is buried in a cemetery because the law requires it; pets are buried in a cemetery because a human wanted them to be there. It doesn’t matter if it is the Jindaiji Pet Cemetery, in Tokyo, or Pet Heaven Memorial Park, in Miami—worldwide, throughout history, the love is the same, and the people who honor their pets in this way understand one another.

As I sat by Clarence’s memorial, I watched a woman visit her pet’s grave. She borrowed scissors from the cemetery office to trim back the grass around the stone. A few rows over, a man carried a bouquet of flowers. He approached the woman to borrow the scissors; she gave them to him with a nod. No judgment in the exchange, just one pet person to another. When you get it, you get it.

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