What We Leave Behind: Going Organic Even in Death

These days, people are starting to realize that incorporating more natural ways into their lives is very beneficial. I’ve spoken with more people in the past couple years that have reduced the amount of fast food they eat, preferring organic alternatives in the grocery store, and some even (like myself) drinking untreated raw milk (which I’d recommend for the flavor alone; it’s delicious). People are opting for more fuel efficient cars and as well as looking for more ways to help sustain the planet for the future generations. Most people I know with any kind of forward-thinking consciousness have grown to understand that organic foods, biodegradable products, and less consumption of goods and resources is not only a means of helping the environment, but can also be a way of caring for what God has given us. Some people can adopt this way of thinking into every aspect of their lives, but there remains one place where this concept of responsibility to nature suddenly drops off: death.

Even some of the foremost proponents of environmental sustainability and natural living for the sake of caring for what God has provided for us will be the first to put in their final arrangements that they wish for their body to be drained of its natural blood, to be pumped full of highly-toxic chemical preservatives, be made to look alive with post-mortem cosmetic devices and substances, placed in a sealed steel box, have that steel box placed in a concrete or other steel box, and have that planted into the ground forever. Why does one’s own respect for the Earth God gave us suddenly stop with our last breath? Why do we feel that we have outsmarted God and nature by creating a process of our own for the disposal of our Earthly remains? 

As B’nai Yisrael, it especially troubles me when a Jew who loves God, the Torah, and the people of Israel, decides upon a burial that more closely resembles that of the traditions of the Egypt that God delivered us out from under. Before I ever begin to judge, I do have to remember that most people do not know that there is another way. Most people in America today do not know that they have the ability to return to the Earth in the simple way that the Bible spells out. 

 

בזעת אפיך תאכל לחם עד שובך אל האדמה כי ממנה לקחת כי עפר אתה ואל עפר תשוב

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19

In the United States today, along with the desire to eat food grown from the Earth and animals raised on the Earth without industry interfering with the process, there is also a movement of individuals that desire to allow human remains to return to the Earth in the same manner. Known widely as “green burial”, a natural burial is the means by which the body of the deceased loved one is allowed to forgo standard embalming procedures and is buried in a shroud or other biodegradable capsule (a casket made of pine, wicker, cardboard, etc.) in a natural setting without the use of a concrete vault or other style of grave liner. Not only is this method of burial substantially less expensive than a typical burial (which can range anywhere between $5,000-$10,000), but is also more in line with Scriptural standards for burial as well as being better for the environment. The body is allowed to break down naturally in the soil and becomes one with the landscape. These special “green cemeteries” are natural lands; typically meadows or nature reserves. 

No casket necessary.


Though the concept of being buried or having a loved one buried directly in the ground without any “protection” for the body seems somewhat new, it’s more of a return to the way it had been done up until around the middle of the 20th century. Green burials are not a new environmentalist fad, but rather a means of getting back to the roots of humanity and the progression of nature. For those alive around the time of the demise of the “pine-box burial”, this probably isn’t nearly a unsettling as it could be to those who live in this era of hiring professionals to carry out the process of laying the dead to rest in the earth. Then again, why are we so unsettled by the concept of burying our dead this way?

Because of the way society’s thought process has been reshaped by the funeral industry, many have been lead to believe that funeral arrangements in the form of embalming as well as burial in a sealed casket and concrete vault is a way to preserve and respect the dead. Why do we invest so much of our money into preserving that which we cannot physically hold onto? Many casket and vault makers boast about selling a product that will not leak for maximum preservation of the body inside. Many individuals grimace at the thought of groundwater or dirt leaking in to Grandma’s casket. Many feel the need to protect their loved ones from the elements when they don’t want to stop and accept the fact that no matter how hard they try, that body is going to eventually wither away into nothingness; leaving nothing but a concrete chamber and a steel box to take up space for future generations to deal with.

The standard “green” cemetery. This is a photo from one in Houston, TX.

Some people picture comfort and serenity being laying in a cushy bed adorned by silk and satin sheets. This is the reason why the inside of caskets are filled with pillows and billowy material that do nothing for the body inside. Personally, my ideal sense of serenity is laying in the tall green grass of a prairie with the soft dirt below conforming to the shape of my body while the wind whistles through the blades, birds’ songs being heard in the distance, and broken bars of sunlight jutting through the leaves in the trees. Letting the shroud function as my last picnic blanket, I would find nothing more respectful than being laid to rest in a place dug out by the sweat of familiar brows, lowered into it by the braun of those who knew me, and cuddling up with the Oklahoma soil.

If the regular way people are laid to rest these days doesn’t sit easy with you, don’t write it off as just being creeped out by death. There’s nothing natural about today’s “traditional” burial system. As natural burial (aka: green burial) becomes more popular, it is becoming more easily attainable for those who desire such arrangement for themselves or loved ones; not to mention extremely affordable in comparison to a mainstream American funeral. Do not let the funeral industry tell you that green/natural burial is not a realistic, respectful, or legal option. It most definitely is available in most states and areas.

Not only does the laying to rest of a body in the dirt serve a benefit to the environment, but also shows a special respect for the Creator’s cycle of nature as well as providing respect for the blessing of the body. It isn’t a decision to taken lightly, but then again neither is a mainstream modern-day burial. Only after much prayer and meditation is such a decision to be made. For more information about such a burial and making arrangements a natural/green burial, log on to the official website of the Green Burial Council.

For you fellow Okies out there, you have a few options. One is Dillion Smith Funeral Services in Sand Springs, OK – where green burial in a green burial cemetery is an option.  Green Haven Cemetery is also happy to accommodate you and your loved ones for burial. Because they’re a non-profit organization, there are no pushy sales tactics and burial is very affordable.


As you consider the benefits of a natural/green burial, also be thinking about the benefits of having a home funeral. Still, that is a blog for another time. 

Shalom.

Learning From the Sikhs: Self-Defense For the Spiritually Inclined.

As the debate over gun regulation rages on, the issue of senseless shootings and religious freedom crossed paths when, in early August, ex-military and white supremacist Wade Michael Page opened fire on worshipers at a Sikh temple in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My first thought about the shooting was one of utter shock that someone could think to harm a place of worship of one of the most peace-loving, peace-defending strictly monotheist religions on Earth. My second thought was: Why didn’t the Sikhs attempt to use their kirpans in defense? 

The kirpan is the dagger that all practicing baptized Sikhs carry on their bodies at all times. It’s typically 6″-9″ long with a curved blade; though many have opted for carrying smaller blades that are purposely dull because of the controversy surrounding carrying knives in public. The carrying of a kirpan was originally instituted by one of the early gurus of Sikhism as Sikhs were frequently becoming victims of attacks as they traveled. These days, the kirpan is mainly used as a symbol of the faith in the same way a crucifix is worn by Christians. In fact, many kirpans are about as dangerous as a crucifix; though some very traditional Sikhs opt for carrying larger and sharper kirpans so they can be properly used when it is absolutely necessary. Still, the kirpan is only to be used in self-defense or in defense of the defenseless when all other means of diplomacy have failed. 

In studying some Sikh texts, I was surprised to find that many of the English translations read much like the English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Here are a few passages concerning the kirpan in comparison with some of the New Testament: 

“When all means to keep peace fail, it’s righteous to rise the sword…when today’s time is moved by inappropriate tyranny. With great fortune you are afforded, the sword (of the) just!” –  Guru Gobind Singh

“He said to them, ‘But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” For what is written about me has its fulfillment.’ And they said, ‘Look, lord, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough.'” – Luke 22:36-38 

In this modern age, carrying a sword or dagger has largely been replaced by concealed carry weapons permits that allow firearms to be worn under the jacket or under a shirt. In most religions, carrying a concealed weapon for the purpose of defending the defenseless is a righteous act. 

The Children of Israel were also called to be people of peace as well as those who defend the defenseless as well as themselves. King David and his son, King Solomon, both taught extensively on the virtues of upholding justice for the innocent. 

“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked. Selah. Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” – Psalm 82:2-4

“Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.” – Proverbs 24:11

Even the carrying of weapons was not uncommon among the Children of Israel. In the Book of Nehemiah in the fourth chapter, there are reports of workers carrying swords on their sides as they worked to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. They even took their swords with them as they went down to wash. Thinking of this made me think of the Sikhs who soak in the Amritsar River with their kirpans strapped on their heads as a symbol of preparedness: 

Though the ancient tradition of carrying a sword or dagger at one’s side has been largely replaced by those carrying firearms, for those who wish to have some means of defending themselves without the great responsibility and strict laws surrounding carrying firearms, there are modern methods of carrying a simple knife on one’s person. From a neck knife to a simple folding knife with a quick-open blade (not button-activated or balisong “butterfly” knives, which are typically illegal), carrying a knife for utilitarian or self-defense purposes is a largely unregulated sphere. It is recommended that one checks local laws about what length of blade and style of knife can be legally carried, but even a very short-bladed knife can be enough to ward off an assailant when all methods of diplomacy have failed. 
Knife worn around the neck; possibly under clothes.
The “kirpan” I carry everyday. About $10 online.
I am now embarrassed by my original question of “Why didn’t they attempt to use their their kirpans?” The Sikhs at that temple, though not out-manned, were certainly out-gunned. Had one of them been given the opportunity, I’m sure one of the “warrior priests” (as Sikhs are frequently referred to as) would have attempted to subdue Wade Michael Page. Later, I found out that even armed police were having tremendous difficulty subduing the shooter once they had arrived on the scene.  
Sikhs around the world have been forced to give up their kirpans in certain scenarios for the sake of safety. This not only does not make anyone safer, but also violates their faith as well decreases their ability to be righteous warrior priests who are dedicated to defending all peoples; regardless of race, creed, or any other mitigating factor. In general, removing weapons from the righteous does not make the world a better place, but rather makes it easier for the evil to take advantage of the innocent. The more peace-lovers take up arms, no matter how small, the safer the world will be from those who do not love peace. 

My prayer is that there come a time when none of these weapons will ever need to be used. Anyone carrying any form of weapon should practice diplomacy first and foremost. Weapons should only be used in self defense will all other methods of defusing a potentially violent situation have been attempted. 

Shalom. 

Carrying a Mitzvah

The night before last, my wife and I stopped off at a gas station a few blocks from our home on the way back from some evening errands. I went inside while my wife stayed in the car with the door locked. As I came back outside, I noticed there was a woman at my wife’s side of the car talking to her through the glass. As soon as I stepped out of the gas station, she focused her attention on me rather than my wife in the car. 

“Excuse me, sir? My car is broken down a little ways over and I need a ride back to it. It’s very hot outside and I’m simply exhausted.” 

The woman certainly did appear incredibly exhausted as sweat was making her make-up run, her hair was wet, and the collar of her shirt was soaked through. She was breathing heavy and there wasn’t another car in sight. Without much hesitation, I said “Sure, hop in.” Before I had really a chance to think about it, we were off. 

“It’s just down the street a couple blocks over and under the bridge.” 

As the woman began to tell me where to go, something didn’t seem right about the situation. My mind began to race. Her car is broken down, yet she wants a ride back to it? Why was she in my neighborhood? How had she gotten there? Where she was telling me to go was becoming seedier and more ominous. More shadows loomed and I started to think about what is happening. I looked in my rear-view mirror to the backseat to now notice that the woman’s eyes were sucken and hollow with large gaps where assorted teeth used to be; features that aged the rest of her by decades. Is this a trap? How do I know that a couple able-bodied friends of hers hadn’t dropped her off in a relatively nice neighborhood to lure some unsuspecting good Samaritans back to a place less visible to be robbed? Thoughts started to race of how stupid I was for giving this woman a ride and how thoughtless I had been for not better protecting my wife.

She pointed to a dark spot a block or two away. “There. You can drop me over there.” I didn’t see any car. Quickly, I tried to come up with some excuse for dropping her off just a block short; where the street lights exposed all the details of the corner. 

“I want to take this upcoming one-way street back to where I was. Can you get out here?” 
“It’s just a block over. Over there.” 

My stomach sank. I remembered that my wife had left her cell phone at home, so I started to reach into my pocket for my cell phone to discreetly pass to her in case things went awry so she could call for help while I attempted to fend off any would-be attack; even if in vain. As I reached into my pocket, the lady called out. 

“Here is fine!” Again, I didn’t see a car for blocks and the point where she had called out was a ways before where she said she wanted to be dropped off. Before I even had a chance to grab my phone, I had stopped and the woman jumped out of my car before I could think twice. 

“Thanks!” she exclaimed and started walking ahead; beyond where I had dropped her off. 

Driving back home, I started thinking about what had just occurred. My wife commented about how the woman had a strong smell; like that of a cleaning product. I assumed so because similar products are used to make crystal meth; a popular street drug amongst the down-and-out. My mind jumped back to what had occurred. Why did she want out before she originally did? Why was she there? Why did she request to be taken back? Had some kind of attack been thwarted and if so, how? 

The next day, I relayed my story to a very good friend of mine who is more of a self-defense and weapons expert than I am; especially since I’m not one by any means. As I retold the story to my friend (a friend who has his concealed carry weapons permit and never leaves his home without a concealed firearm), it popped in my mind before he could even mention what I had been thinking: maybe she thought I was on to her scheme and thought I was reaching for a weapon. 

“Dude, that sounds sketchy as all get out. As much as I would have wanted to help, I would have thought it out more. And yeah, both you and Jill should have been armed in that situation. I’m glad it ended up it ended up not being as scary or as sketchy.” 

As I explained to him that I was only trying to do the right thing, he said that was good, but that I need to be more careful with any good works. 

“I’ve learned the hard way that not everyone is needy. I’ve watched teams of con-artists here in town swindle money and things. I’ve almost gotten attacked physically because a buddy and I were trying to help a lady. People are scary at times.” 

So, what do I do? Do I stop helping people in need? Do I say “Thanks, but I don’t know whether or not you’re a thieving crook” and let that prevent me from trying to stay true to myself, my faith, and my fellow man? Do I do what my friend recommended and arm myself? 

When I began thinking about it more, I began to realize that this really is one of the first instances in history when people have started to put their own protection solely in the hands of another entity; mainly, the police. In the past, even with police available, it wasn’t uncommon for citizens to carry protection in the form of a firearm or some other means of self-defense. Only in the past 20-50 years has the practice of carrying a weapon been stigmatized. Sadly, even in this technologically-advanced day and age, when only seconds stand between individuals and danger, the police are, at best, a phone call and a few minutes away. 

Do I really feel threatened enough or feel like I live in a rough enough neighborhood to justify carrying a firearm on my person at all time? Not necessarily. Still, the threat of danger always persists; even in the nicest of neighborhoods. In addition to the possibility of danger, the more people forget about the right to bear arms, the more that liberty is taken from them in the form of more gun regulations which mainly only act to keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens because they are not practiced by the lawless. Those with intent to wreck havoc with a firearm do not pay any mind to “gun free” zone signs or weapons permits. It only tells these individuals to expect less resistance while committing their crimes. 

Am I going to start carrying a concealed weapon? Well, I’d have to start by first legally obtaining a firearm as well as the training necessary to confidently carry and use one. So, while I haven’t yet made up my mind on the issue, it is certainly on my mind; even if for no other reason than it is a right that the founders of my country fought to hold on to. If I do decide to carry a firearm one day, you won’t even know it. If that day comes, I pray to God that I never end up having to use it. 

Shalom. 

Small Town Synagogue: Oklahoma's Jewish Beginnings

I’ll admit that part of the shtick of my blog is that I talk about Hebrew concepts and living by the Torah in a predominantly non-Jewish place, but there once was a time when Oklahoma had several thriving Jewish communities. Any T-Town resident can see the evidence of Tulsa’s once-burgeoning Jewish beginnings in the names of buildings and foundations all over the city; from OU-Tulsa’s Schusterman Center at 41st  and Yale to the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art off 71st Street. Though there remains a Reform Jewish temple, a Conservative synagogue, and an Orthodox shul in Tulsa along with various Jewish congregations around the Oklahoma City area, most would be surprised to hear about some of Oklahoma’s first Jewish communities. 

While many Jewish populations are attracted to larger cities (like New York City; which is rumored to have more Jews per square foot than Jerusalem), Oklahoma didn’t have too many larger cities until a little later on in the game. If you were to ask the average person where the first Jewish congregation started, most would tell you Tulsa or Oklahoma City, but the answer surprised me once I found out. 

Organized when Oklahoma wasn’t even yet a state (still Indian territory), the small Jewish community of Ardmore, Oklahoma organized the first Jewish congregation called Temple Emeth (Hebrew for “truth”); though it would be a while before they’d have a building of their own. The records are somewhat unclear about their original buildings, but the synagogue closed its doors for good in 2004. Because of the immense cost of tearing the building down due to its asbestos construction, it still stands in Ardmore as a memorial to small-town Oklahoma Hebrew folks. I’ve heard that the building is for sale if anyone is interested in restarting a Jewish community in Ardmore, OK (current population of about 24,000).

Temple Emeth Jewish Synagogue Ardmore Oklahoma
Photo credit: http://www.oklahomahistory.net

Temple Emeth Jewish Synagogue Ardmore Oklahoma
Photo credit: http://www.oklahomahistory.net
Temple Emeth Jewish Synagogue Ardmore Oklahoma
Photo credit: http://www.oklahomahistory.net


While Oklahoma’s current Jewish population is only about .1%, there was a time when many thousand Israelites proudly called Oklahoma home. Though only around a thousand Jews lived in Oklahoma around the time it became a state in 1907, that number exploded to about 7,500 in the 1920s. 

Believe it or not, many small towns in Oklahoma at one time had Jewish populations. Enid was home to Congregation Emanuel. Chickasha’s Jewish population met at B’nai Abraham. Services were conducted in Hebrew in the small town of Hartshorne at B’nai Israel; which had been in existence since 1916. Though these congregations have long since dissolved due to a number of factors, little specks of Jewish activity still exists throughout rural Oklahoma. Most have no idea of their existence, but Temple Bethahaba in Muskogee, Temple Emanuel in Ponca City, and the Seminole Hebrew Center in Seminole, OK are still home to small-town Torah study. 

What is the reason for the decline in Israelite life amongst the Chosen People or lack of community? Could it be intermarriage, bombardment by Christianity, a lack of a Jewish infrastructure of kosher eateries and neighborhoods? The answer is anyone’s guess, but even with Oklahoma being the belt buckle of the Bible belt with places like Oral Roberts University and RHEMA Bible College, the remaining population of Okies of the Hebrew variety have remained dedicated to the Torah and their roots. 

They say it’s easy to be Torah-observant in places like Chicago, Dallas, New York City, Los Angeles, or Jerusalem. Oklahoma just makes you work for it. 

Shalom. 

P.S. 
Though Temple Emeth was Oklahoma’s first Jewish community, it was not Oklahoma’s first synagogue. That honor belonged to the building of Temple Israel in Tulsa, OK. The building was nestled in a neighborhood about a mile from my home in Midtown Tulsa. Built in 1914, Temple Israel’s congregants from the surrounding neighborhood met there for services before they moved to another location a few neighborhoods over in 1955. 

Temple Israel Reform Jewish Synagogue Tulsa Oklahoma

Sadly, just days after it was announced that the old then-abandoned synagogue was to be restored, it was consumed by a fire. Though the cause of the fire was unknown, many blamed faulty wiring which caused an electrical fire. Not being far from my home, I remembered seeing one of Tulsa’s most beloved historical landmarks burn to the ground with my own eyes. 

Temple Israel Reform Jewish Synagogue Tulsa Oklahoma on fire