Of all the articles I have written, the ones that have evoked the most response are two about woodland burials, one in the Union of Liberal and Progressive Jews newsletter and a second in the Jewish Chronicle in September 2006. Rabbi Hillel Avidan suggested the idea of woodland burial in 1991. He said, ‘sharing one’s grave with a tree is a very positive way of proclaiming commitment to planetary care.’ It seems to be an idea whose time has come.
There are various possible reasons for this: The very idea is attractive. This is little mentioned but I think goes very deep. With something emotive as thinking about one’s death, the idea of being placed beneath a tree feels more comfortable than either being placed beneath a tombstone or being burnt (for those who accept cremation – though vaporised is nearer the reality of what happens.) The idea is environmentally attractive. Instead of using up valuable land in burial space, which is in short supply, trees are planted to create woodland. For mixed faith couples, woodland burial sites provide a neutral space where they, and their children if they predecease them, can be buried together. The possibilities for mixed faith couples within the Liberal and Reform movement are changing, but until recently and with few exceptions, the only other possibility has been cremation and interment of the ashes together.
Whatever the reasons, woodland burials have become more widely known and popular in recent times. They provide a way of burying a person that not only does no harm to the environment, but also provides a benefit in the planting of a tree. In woodland burial grounds there are no tombstones. In some, a small plaque records the name of the deceased, in others, only a tree planted at the grave marks its place.
Woodland burial is fully consistent with Jewish ideals and values – perhaps more so than conventional burial. Judaism teaches us simplicity in death. An elaborate tombstone is not required. The Hebrew word for tombstone is matzevah, something set down to mark the site of the grave, and a plaque is adequate for this purpose. Neither is an expensive coffin required. Judaism emphasises that all are equal in death. A pine coffin, a willow casket, or even, in Israel, a simple shroud is all that is required. Coffins made of recycled biodegradable material are now available and meet the needs of both Jewish and British law. Although not a necessary part of woodland burial, they are consistent with the idea, being the most environmentally friendly option.
This brings us to the second, major, advantage of woodland burials. They do not use up land required for other purposes. Rather, they create precious woodland. Trees are treasured in Judaism. They are celebrated at Tu Bishvat and valued for their shade and their fruit. Nowadays we are even more aware of how essential they are to our environment and to the future of our planet. Judaism teaches us that it is our duty to care for our world. As a well-known midrash tells us: ‘When God created the first human beings and led them round the Garden of Eden, they were told;”Look at my works! See how beautiful they are. For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it. “’
We have been slow to take up the idea of woodland burial, although at least one Liberal congregation does offer the facility to its members and Liberal Judaism is looking at how the movement can take the idea forward. If as yet few Jews seem to have taken up this option, it is likely to be because they feel they wish to be buried with other Jews and this takes precedence over their wish for woodland burials. We should be therefore looking at how we can set up Jewish woodland burial grounds. In London, it should be possible to find land for a communal woodland burial ground. Outside London, it may be harder for smaller communities to provide an entire ground, but it may well be feasible to designate part of a municipal woodland cemetery, just as at present some communities have a designated part of a burial ground. Not all municipal authorities yet have facilities for woodland burial, but we should be putting pressure on them to provide this facility.
Margaret Jacobi is Rabbi of Birmingham Progressive Synagogue.