Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

This is no way to treat the dead

An alkaline hydrolysis unit at a funeral home in Windom, Minnesota.

Years ago, the late Canadian author, Robertson Davies, wrote these words in an essay,”Haunted by Halloween”:

Our forebears are deserving of tribute for one indisputable reason, if for no other; without them we should not be here. Let us recognize that we are not the ultimate triumph but rather we are beads on a string. Let us behave with decency to the beads that were strung before us, and hope modestly that the beads that come after us will not hold us of no account merely because we are dead…triviality about the past leads certainly toward a trivial future.

Bear these words in mind, as I tell you about a new, ghoulish (the day after Halloween linkage) way of disposing of the dead.

Not burial, and not cremation.

No. It is a liquefaction process called by a variety of names — flameless cremation, green cremation or the “Fire to Water” method, and chemically known as alkaline hydrolysis.

Here is how it works (and, if you have just eaten, forgive me).

A machine uses a chemical bath to dissolve protein, blood, and fat.

After that happens, what’s left (in addition to the soul)?

  • A coffee-colored liquid consisting of minerals, salts, amino acids, soap and water.
  • Powdery bone.
  • Weakened bones that can be crushed into ash.
  • Any metal that was in the body, like dental fillings.

Now – imagine that for your mother.

Alkaline hydrolysis is not new. It was first patented in the United States in 1888 “for the treatment of bones and animal waste.” The process was modernized in the 1990s, when it was used to dispose of human cadavers and dead pets.

The process has become all the rage among younger funeral directors.

Why is alkaline hydolysis gaining in popularity?

Well, because for some people, reverence for the environment seems to take precedence over reverence for the dead.

  • Consider the fact that the death rate is close to one hundred percent. This means that at a certain point, we will run out of land for cemeteries.
  • The carbon footprint for liquefaction is about a tenth of that caused by cremation.
  • Liquefaction uses a fraction of the energy of a standard cremator and releases no fumes.

Then, there are other benefits of liquefaction. The resulting fluid contains nutrients. It can be used, and is already being used, as a fertilizer.

Rick Vonderwell, who manages Tails Remembered, a pet crematory in Delphos, Ohio, uses it at his farm, as do several large universities.

Where do I stand on this somewhat new and increasingly popular practice?

It violates every Jewish principle regarding how we treat the dead.

In Judaism, the body is sacred. It does not lose its sanctify when it is dead. To treat a body this way is nothing less than nivul ha-met, a violation and desecration of the dead.

I feel the same way about cremation. When anyone asks my advice on this matter, I counsel against it.

We are living only 75 years after history’s greatest single greatest assault on the Jewish body – the Shoah.

Anyone who has stood at the ovens in Auschwitz, as I have done, will probably resonate with this deep, visceral feeling.

(Or, perhaps not. I have heard of Holocaust survivors who have explicitly requested that they be cremated – as an act of solidarity with their loved ones who perished in the camps.)

At least, with ashes, there is the possibility – and probability – that loving survivors will place the ashes in an urn – burying them, or perhaps keeping the ashes in a place of honor. (Forgive me: as soon as I type these words, I think of this scene from “Meet the Parents”).

But, with liquefaction, the remains go, well…..

I sympathize with the environmental concerns regarding burial. I wonder, like many people: where will all the dead go?

But, even though I am committed to environmentalism, I worry far more about the coarsening of a society in which the dead are treated as disposable commodities.

Yes, yes: people will say that “I carry the memory of my mother in my heart,” which I suppose is true.

But, Judaism has never believed in the absolute interiority of such feelings. There is something to be said about having a place to visit.

A story: years ago, I knew a family whose elderly mother had died, in her nineties.

I found out about the death weeks later. When I inquired about it, and asked about the funeral (I was their rabbi, and was puzzled that I never got a call), they hemmed and hawed.

Finally, the husband said: “You know, she was so old – we just decided to have her cremated. No service. Frankly, it just wasn’t convenient for us.”

“What happened to her ashes?” I asked.

“We just kind of….threw them away,” said the mother.

“In any place special, or meaningful?” I asked.

“No,” the father responded. “No, we just got rid of them.”

Nothing. No funeral. No burial. No prayers. Nothing.

Grandma’s soul went to heaven.

But, her earthly remains went to nothing.

Two years later, mom and dad contacted me.

They were distraught. Their daughter, aged twenty, had joined a cult.

Why?

“Because she said that there’s nothing spiritual in our home, or in our lives,” the mother wept.

For decades, I have been haunted by this question:

Was there any link between this young woman’s search for spirituality – and the fact that she obviously witnessed that her grandmothere’s remains were treated with something approaching apathy – even callousness?

It matters how the dead are treated.

It might not matter to them, but it matters to us.

And, it matters to God.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

20 Comments

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  • Aside from the space issue, the Jewish funeral process is relatively green as well. It’s all biodegradable. Cf. Gen. 3:19.

  • I looked up Jewish funerals on the web. What about localities that require a sealed vault? Are there exemptions?

  • Jewish law does not absolutely bar the use of vaults, although they are not preferable and I have not seen them used. My understanding is that there are several solutions. One is to have a vault that is open at the bottom or has holes drilled into the bottom to allow decomposition.

  • An piece which gives cause for reflection. From a theistic perspective, any given methodology may make no difference, but as Rabbi Salkin points out, the spirit behind it likely does. The indifferent manner of the congregants that he describes in the example from his past is somewhat disturbing to me. If the soul and spirit survive the body, as I believe, and if God so chooses to reconstitute the body at a later time, He will not be limited by our efforts to scatter or resource the constituent elements. This is not the problem. The problem lies in the fact that if we have so little institutional memory as applied to the care of the remains of our loved ones, it may well beg the question as to how much they really meant to us. Usually there are sound, practical reasons behind the instructions given to us in scripture that have emotive and psychological consequences. At least for the sensitive at heart.

  • Referring to cremated remains as ashes is searching for a kinder term. All that is left in a cremation retort after the cycle has finished is the bone that wasn’t entirely consumed. This is put through a grinder, the results of which are returned to the family as the “ashes.”

    Perhaps modern Jews could take page from their ancestor’s book for the dead. They allowed the body to decompose and about a year later, returned and placed the bones in an ossuary, a bone box. Then the dead take up far less room.

  • My thoughts go to the poor animals that were killed for this so called “green” method of treating remains (hypocrisy yet again). Nice to read first thing in the morning another example of lost humanity, putting me on a trajectory of hopelessness just as the day is starting. Can’t wait until this world is transformed when Christ returns.

  • People and large animals have been dying for thousands of years. Each body returns to the earth. Have you ever seen the small (in area) old Jewish cemetery of Prague where an estimated 100,000 bodies are buried over the centuries? Bury people without embalming and vaults. Dig deeper graves to stack bodies over time. This is rather simple. This will allow the family a grave to visit and remember their ancestors.

  • Sounds more like ancestor worship. What happens to the remains is inconsequential. BTW, funerals are for the survivors, not the dead.

  • End of life choices are personal and important, and I very much respect that flame cremation and/or alkaline hydrolysis are not the choices for many people. I do however wish the author had picked up the phone or googled for ten minutes prior to writing the article. Not only did the author use the photo without permission, he also did not come to understand that families do receive an urn of ashes.

    Ash, by definition, are the mineral remains that exist after the complete decomposition of organic material. With flame cremation, whole and fragmented bone remains exist (along with a small amount of what people would actually recognize as ash, from the body, clothing, and cremation container). These collective remains are placed in a processor and reduced to unrecognizable fragments to be placed in an urn. These are the “ashes” which families receive (which truly are ashes, by proper definition).

    The same is true for alkaline hydrolysis. The process takes longer, and it is more gentle to the final mineral (bone) remains. The remains resemble the complete skeletal remains, and the same processing practice used for cremation is performed to reduce the minerals to powder form (this is common practice in most countries, however there are some cultures interested in leaving the remains as whole as possible). The family receives approximately 20-30% more ash remains. Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to witness flame cremation versus alkaline hydrolysis has been in awe, describing it as much more gentle, and very clean. It’s much lower impact to our environment, and the process emits no direct emissions (only the indirect emissions from the electricity and alkali used, both extremely low). But this eco-aspect is not why people choose this option. The number one cited reason is that they believe it is more gentle to their loved one than fire.

    For some people, burial is sacred, and for others, fire is sacred in death. I don’t believe that reverence for the environment has taken precedence over reverence for the dead – it’s quite the contrary. There is a beautiful link between reverence for the environment, the living, and the dead. We can honor, respect, and healthily grieve our loved ones that have passed before us with any of these three options. The choices should be available.

  • Really? Do you think for one moment they did not stick some poor animal in there to make sure it did what it was suppose to do? Get your head out of the sand.

  • It was originally developed to dispose of donated medical cadavers and euthanized pets, so yes they likely used both to develop the tech. They wouldn’t have needed to kill animals for testing, there are plenty available from any local kill shelter.

  • This technology was first developed in the mid 1800s for livestock
    moralities, and it was put into a scientific setting in the early 1990s
    at Albany Medical School. My family makes the equipment, and my father developed the modern technology 22 years ago. I can assure you that not one single animal has ever been killed to test the equipment. Naturally (and sometimes sadly) there is no shortage of deceased animals. There are natural deaths, and there are animals shelters with euthanized pets due to bite cases and overpopulation.

    Living things die, and there are different ways to return the body back to the environment. Composting facilities didn’t kill animals to develop their technologies, and neither did we. The fact that we deal with body care for dead animals doesn’t mean we aren’t absolute animal lovers.

  • One man’s view:
    The Resurrection is guaranteed, no matter what happens to the corpse.
    The disposition of the corpse, and any ceremonies connected therewith, are for the benefit of the survivors, and do not affect the eternal well-being of the decedent in the least.
    Funerals cost far too much.
    Every dollar the undertaker gets is one dollar less for the widow.
    Thanks to metal caskets and metal/concrete grave liners, corpses cannot properly decompose and replenish the earth. When embalming is added, corpses pollute rather than replenish.

  • Maybe you ought (in light of Sam’s comment) maybe not to assume the worst and thereby potentially spread your misunderstanding of the situation? Great that you care for animals, but start with facts please?

  • To use the Shoah as any kind of argument against Alkaline Hydrolysis or cremation is just exploitive and absurd (and I say this as a Jew who had many members of my family murdered during WW2). Nearly as many Jews were executed by Einzatzgruppen and thrown into pits as they were murdered in death camps. There is nothing which inherently “honors” a body or a person’s memory by sticking it in the ground. Alkaline Hydrolysis is a very green method which honors the earth by creating the least amount of pollution. That means a lot to me. Mr. Salkin, mind your own damn business.

  • I absolutely agree with your first sentence, but it is also scientifically accurate. Ashes are the mineral remains when matter is thoroughly decomposed or burned to inorganic elements (void of carbon content) …… think “ash content” in soil. Bone is made of organic and inorganic components; alkaline hydrolysis leaves only the inorganic calcium phosphate remains….proper “ash.” And if a body is buried in soil, after a long period of time which allows complete decomposition, all that would remain in that situation are also the inorganic minerals….. also ash (albeit in larger fragments).

  • I like your comment, and it piques my curiosity. What about a full viewing where the family and friends gather to mourn, share stories, and support each other. I know for my mom, we’ll get together to pick photos for the slide show and make some photo boards, we’ll go through our quilt collection to choose which of her handmade quilts to display at the viewing. She wants Aquamation, but this would be the same with cremation, so the funeral home will help us with that. Then for close friends and family, we will hold a memorial service for the final interment of the urn in a cemetery niche. I’ll be honest, us kids will take some ashes to later spread in some of our favorite places spent with mom, I know some do not believe in doing this. I guess I’m saying, the rituals and reflection are important, and for those who don’t have some other objection to cremation/AH, this part remains unchanged. It never crossed my mind that in choosing a non-burial option, the level of care and the honor which we give our loved ones should ever wane.

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