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.

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