by Brittany Beck
Though many traditions and rituals surrounding death are ancient and embedded deep within religious histories, the growing popularity of environmentalism and the desire to “become green” in the modern world have started to challenge some of these practices, while promoting others. This paper will first examine different belief systems and practices commonly found among major world religions including Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism. Next, these practices will be evaluated in terms of their environmental “friendliness” and environmental consequences, both positive and negative, of each practice will be identified. Finally, current trends of our increasingly modernized world and widespread efforts to revolutionize environmentalism into all aspects of life, including the final stage of death, will be discussed along with future implications of these efforts.
Beliefs and Practices in Judaism
Judaism holds the belief that the soul and body are separate, which stems from the belief that the soul existed before it was ever “assigned” a body, and thus will continue to exist after the body is no longer useful (A., & Mendes-Flohr, 2009). Similar to the way an invalid Torah scroll is no longer useful to us, yet it is buried out of respect, comes the idea that the body, once a sacred vessel, one day no longer serves that purpose, and should return to the dust of the earth from which it was made in order for the soul to return to the Divine Creator (A., & Mendes-Flohr, 2009). In fact, people are released of their religious obligations during the burial and a “bad death” is considered that of a corpse left behind unburied (A., & Mendes-Flohr, 2009).
In order for the body to best be returned to earth, Jewish practices burial exclusively and emphasizes both speed and simplicity of the process (A., & Mendes-Flohr, 2009). While more recently it has become common across North America to place the body in a cement vault, simplifying the landscape work and making the land easier to maintain, some Jewish leaders oppose this and believe that it does not follow the teachings of Judaism. They argue that it challenges the ability for the body to reenter the earth, but other Jewish leaders argue back by saying if dirt is placed inside of the vault it not only allows the body to decompose properly but also prevents the ground from sinking in around the grave, which would show disrespect according to R. Moshe Feinstein (Gunther, & Washofsky, 1997).
Judaism views death as both a natural part of life, but also as a punishment for sin (A., & Mendes-Flohr, 2009). In a Midrash in Zohar, it is believed that Adam appears before man as he dies and man blames his death on Adam for his sin in the Garden of Eden. Adam then responds by saying that he was punished for his sin and proceeds to ask the man how many sins he has committed, implying that there is not death without sin (A., & Mendes-Flohr, 2009). This may correspond with the Orthodox belief that lengthy decomposition allows time for atonement for sin committed during one’s time on earth (Pursell, 2005).
Judaism rejects cremation on different levels and different sects of Judaism have their own reasons for turning it down. On a spiritual level, the use of fire and burning historically symbolized the destruction of something evil or impure and was used for punishments or by enemies (Pursell, 2005). Jews who support cremation felt they had finally found a story to back them up when Saul and his sons were burned by the Israeli rescuers after being found executed, however it was later found that their bones were buried afterwards and therefore the story was not enough to convince others to follow them (Pursell, 2005). Orthodox Jews reject cremation, as it represents for them a final statement of denying Judaism, while Conservative and Reform Jews reject cremation on the basis of history and the use of mass cremation inflicted on the Jews during the holocaust (Pursell, 2005). Beliefs and Practices in Christianity
Like Judaism, Christianity also followed what is thought to be the most ancient and possibly first universal practice: burial (Harper’s Magazine, 1853). However, the reasoning one will find will be slightly different than that of Judaism, such as the linking of burial to the idea of Christ’s resurrection (Garces-Foley, 2006). Harper’s Magazine article discusses how cremation came later, and theorizes that this began from the need to quickly dispose of bodies while in war, but the practice remained mostly within Greek and Roman circles. The article, dating back to 1853 also talks about how many Christians were in favor of cremation, but came to the conclusion that as long as the bible holds power, the practice will never be fully adopted because of the significance of Christ and the possibility of resurrection. The article also talks about the way in which Christian’s referred to death as “sleep” in many texts.
Cremation has a long, drawn out history of being debated over and over again. One aspect viewed cremation as being a solution to overcrowding, resulting from the industrial revolution, in which cemeteries were becoming too full and insufficiently deep which was a health hazard (Garces-Foley, 2006). Some of the earliest historic arguments stem from individual interpretation of key bible words as being either positive or negative. Prothero (2001) gives an example of this when he says:
When traditionalists thought of the crematory they thought of hellfire: the retort
was the devil’s furnace. The cemetery, by contrast, was “G-d’s acre,” a beautiful
place of rest. But cremationists… depicted the cemetery as a site of incessant and
gruesome decay—the “Devil’s Acre,” not G-d’s. Cremation they associated not
with hell but with heaven. Fire, some believed, liberated the soul. (p. 93)
As the quote describes, people struggled with the debate of cremation and different interpretations of bible meanings lead to different understandings of what would be considered right and wrong.
Beliefs and Practices in Hinduism
Death among the Hindu religion is much less taboo and discussion of death is not only common but someone encouraged, as they do not believe that dying is an end, and that reincarnation will bring them back (Waxler-Morrison, 2005). According to Hindu traditions, bodies are burned in open-air fires and their ashes are scattered among rivers, most commonly the Ganges River, and other bodies of water nearby (Singh, 1993). Cremation typically occurs on the same day as death, and in the case that the deceased does not live near the Ganges River, ashes are kept, if possible, until they can be scattered there, or alternatively they are scattered in another body of water (Waxler-Morrison, 2005). The taking of ashes to India connects the people to their “ancestral, religious, and cultural roots” and is explained by Firth (1997) as, “…a spiritual as well as emotional pilgrimage, in which contact is re-established with distant relatives and holy places visited to gain merit and for renewal,” (p.92). Firth also further explores this ultimate need to reach the Ganges River by explaining, “… it is the return to and maintenance of his/her deepest roots, reinforcing and confirming, for those in the Diaspora, the umbilical link with India,” (p.92). In a way this practice resembles the Jewish desire to return to be buried in the land of Israel, making it one’s final resting place.
Environmental Concerns of Popular Practices
While burial has many religious connections, the way in which it is done can also be more or less environmental friendly if the right efforts are put forth. Embalming fluid creates negative views of burial, as it contains toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, which can leak into the soil and water (Irving, 2011). Mager and Labour (1998) reveal that the development of cancer, asthma, and mutagenic cell changes are just two potential effects of formaldehyde and that exposure can cause irritation to the eyes, nasal lining, and respiratory system. They also found many studies that confirm an increase of leukemia and brain tumors among morticians. Formaldehyde is not all that can be found in embalming fluid, unfortunately there is a myriad of toxic chemicals including methanol, which affects the central nervous and vision systems, and phenol which can be absorbed rapidly through the skin and can affect the kidneys, lungs, liver, and heart in addition to the nervous system (Mager & Labour, 1998). Needless to say, the intrusion of embalming fluids into soil or water systems could severely damage crops and could potentially harm large groups of people.
While cremation seemed to help with overcrowding during the Industrial Revolution, when thought of on a more environmental level, the questionable gases omitted and released into the environment may counteract any potential benefits (Garces-Foley, 2006). Cremation has potential to use fewer resources than burial, but the burning of fossil fuels runs the risk of polluting the earth in different ways such as through mercury poisoning, however newer facilities have cut back, using only half of the fuel (Irving, 2011).
The burning of bodies, as the Hindus have practiced, results in serious environmental damage. Singh (1993) reports that open-air burning systems waste ninety-five percent of the energy that they expel, and among this waste one will find gases like Nitrogen and Phosphorus that are released into the atmosphere. Singh also uncovers the lingering effects that accompany this practice such as the mass deforestation in order to supply the wood for the fires, which leads to soil erosion, floods, and water contamination from both flooding as well as ashes and leftover debris from deceased animals and humans, which can also promote growth of aquatic weeds, further destroying the water supply.
Recent Trends and Their Environmental Impact
As our world becomes more modern, people seem to be seeking out more personalized and unique death rituals. In some cultures, cremation occurs in order for the ashes to be placed into a painting or in jewelry that can be kept in the family’s home or worn. Some are particularly extravagant such as shooting ashes out into space or along with fireworks (Bregman, 2010). While this grand exit may appeal to some, others prefer a less narcissistic and much more natural way of departing. With the rise of environmental ideals and the trend of “going green”, people are attempting to improve their impact on the world in a various areas of life, including death.
A recent trend known as “green burial” is simple and immediate, using no embalming fluids, metals, woods, or concrete, allowing natural plant life and wildlife to flourish and continue to grow (Bregman, 2010). “Green” cemeteries are popular around Great Britain and are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, with thirteen cemeteries already started. Similarly, a “woodland” burial incorporates the planting of a tree atop the gravesite rather than a stone or other marker (Garces-Foley, 2006). With the technology of our time, some have even used a GPS system that can locate the grave without it having to be marked in anyway (Bregman, 2010). While this might be a little too much for some, the ideas are certainly unique and attempt to incorporate our modern living with environmental ideals.
Our world has grown into a new era in which technology and modernization, as well as creative new methods of living, are valued and deemed essential for improving our lives. While environmentalism may be a current popular trend, the benefits that could arise from what once seemed like only a mere fad, could help to repair the world that we have been destroying for thousands of years now.
As we move towards these improvements historical traditions will challenge us and there will be those groups who refuse to change, but at least in Judaism, the Torah and Judaic texts are to be interpreted and used as guidelines for life. As life changes these guidelines should be reinterpreted to appropriately incorporate the challenges and dilemmas of living in a modernized world. The current practices of Judaism and Christianity already show similarities to the environmental “green” cemeteries, showing promise for even greater support and a potential willingness to adjust for the sake of the environment. The ancient practices of religion serve deep and meaningful purposes but combining these traditions with similar practices or adjusting them to fit the current environmental needs, will aid in efforts to insure that there will be a world in the years to come.
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