Keith Kahn Harris

Metal Jew

Natural Burials in the British Jewish Community: A Response from Abe Alpren, Jewish Humanist Funeral Celebrant

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The cross-denominational as well as secular interest in ‘natural burials’ is rapidly building in line with our gathering desire to interact more harmoniously with the environment. Humanism accommodates whatever format of funeral might be required, and within whatever setting, including woodland burials. To date, I have officiated at twenty such funerals: each held within privately maintained woodland burial grounds.

In my experience, reaction to these natural burials has been uniformly positive and uplifting. Orthodox Jews attending out of respect for the deceased or the family have invariably accepted the ceremony uncritically whilst not necessarily agreeing with the form undertaken. Many non-practicing Jews present have said that they would try to arrange a similar funeral for themselves.

As an interested observer, I would argue against the establishment of a centrally located woodland or other designated natural burial ground exclusively for Jewish usage on the practical grounds of low utilisation. Apart from causing unnecessary alienation of the Orthodox community, it should also be noted that Reform and Liberal Jews have already supported inclusion within existing sites. In any event, death should surely be commemorated amongst the living, and in the vast majority of circumstances within the local community.

I officiated at my first secular funeral twenty-two years ago on behalf of a close personal friend Edgar Neuberg, who had been best man at my wedding. Edgar was a Jew, as I am. Having escaped Germany ahead of1939, he settled in Birmingham where he worked tirelessly in support of the Jewish Blind Society, to whose cause he co-opted me. As it happened he married out and it was his wife Lydia’s firm wish – and one that I am certain Edgar would have positively endorsed – that in mirroring his death, his funeral should be as accessible to his loved ones as his life had been.

I was invited to join the British Humanist Association (BRA) in 1992. Since then, I have acted as celebrant at over 1500 funerals, several of which were for Jews whom like Edgar had opted for a secular service. Up until 2000, I also continued to serve the local Jewish community in the purification of the dead (taharah) prior to Orthodox burial; a duty I have undertaken for some 400 deceased. Whilst I have never seen any conflict between these separate responses to death, the Chevra Kadish eventually felt otherwise. In having to make a choice, I determined that it was possible to be both a Jew in my heart and a Humanist in my head. The 6000-strong membership made up of a multiplicity of different creeds assembled within the BRA – and, of course, the far greater number of BRA supporters and fellow travellers – would suggest that my own decision has been by no means been a singular one. It is no coincidence, though, that I stopped attended schul on a weekly basis at about the same time.

Judaism is no exception to other religions in respect of its requirement to embrace both the Orthodox and the secular. As a coda to life, the acknowledgement of death should reflect those differing degrees of adherence. Central to the Humanist philosophy is an acceptance  that whilst religion can provide comfort and support, it falls short when seeking to control: in death every bit as much as in life. Whenever I am asked what order of service is appropriate, my response is always whatever mostly closely reflects the life of the bereaved.

Secular adherence to Judaism; non-membership of a particular synagogue; or just a desire to facilitate the comfortable inclusion of non-Jewish family members and friends at the funeral, are the three most usual reasons for Jews opting for a secular or Humanist ceremony. Even so, the format of service can contain as much Jewish (as indeed any other denominational) content as requested. Thus, the Kaddish may be recited, or indeed any particular Jewish prayer may be included within the proceedings.

Self-evidently, it would run contrary to the Humanist ethic to have areas within natural burial grounds set aside solely for Jewish usage. Having broken with tradition, death should not be subject to such demarcation lines.

August 2007