Milwaukee Jewry soon will join a small number of other U.S. Jewish communities in what seems to be a growing trend among people concerned with protecting the natural environment.
This summer at a to-be-announced date, Greenwood Cemetery will dedicate an area for “green burials” — i.e., burials that foster natural decomposition and employ environment protection practices, like no use of embalming fluid or pesticides. It thereby will become the first Wisconsin Jewish cemetery to offer this option.
This may seem like a modern and radical idea foreign to Judaism, but in fact it may not be.
As the brochure for the project states, “Jewish burial traditions naturally equate to green burial…. Jewish burial, like green burial, fosters returning to the earth as naturally as possible. Avoiding embalming, using biodegradable materials and putting the body in contact with the earth are hallmarks of both approaches to body disposition.”
The cemetery officials are calling the area “Prairie Green,” according to John Pereles, the president of the Greenwood Cemetery Association’s board of directors.
The name was chosen, Pereles told The Chronicle in an interview on March 10, because the plans call for the area to become a “prairie setting,” with prairie grasses, wildflowers and some trees.
People will be interred here in either biodegradable caskets or in shrouds and inside a rigid and biodegradable container, and cremation remains can also be buried there in a biodegradable urn, according to the brochure.
Pereles said the cemetery will follow the guidelines of the California-based Green Burial Council, and it has obtained certification from that organization.
Prairie Green will not resemble a traditional Jewish cemetery in that graves will not be marked with headstones, markers or monuments.
Instead, Prairie Green will have a number of big boulders on which will be carved the names (including Hebrew names by request) and birth dates and death dates of the deceased buried in the area near the boulder.
A Global Positioning System will be used to mark locations of individual graves, with a GPS device given to people who want to visit the exact location, Pereles said.
Pereles said the 10-acre cemetery will dedicate about one-half of an acre to this project. He said it is large enough for “probably 500 burials. And we’ve got room to expand if need be.”
Greenwood Cemetery is not the first Wisconsin cemetery to have this option. Greenwood works with Forest Home Cemetery, which “surrounds” Greenwood, maintains Greenwood’s grounds and performs many of the Jewish cemetery’s daily business activities.
Forest Home for the past “five or six years” has had its own green burial area, called Prairie Rest. It also is constructed as a prairie setting, with boulders bearing the names in proximity to the graves, and it uses GPS technology for locating specific graves.
Pereles said Greenwood officials “decided to emulate what Forest Home had developed,” saying “let’s not recreate the wheel.”
Even so, Greenwood officials did not think of providing this service by themselves. Pereles said members of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, specifically Rabbi Dena Feingold of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha and Rabbi Jay R. Brickman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, approached him in the autumn of 2012 with the idea.
Feingold told The Chronicle in a telephone interview that about three years ago a couple came to her, the discussion turned to burial plans and the couple asked her about whether Jewish green burial existed.
Feingold said she didn’t know, but “it makes sense that there could be… A green or natural burial is a perfect fit for what a Jewish burial should be like.”
She pointed out that in Israel most of the time the deceased are buried just in shrouds with no caskets. Pereles said this is not allowed in Prairie Green because cemetery workers do not want to risk any direct contact with the body.
In addition, Feingold has noticed that “a lot of people are concerned about the environment and sustainability, and their choices are influenced by that.”
She brought the idea to the rabbis’ council. It created a subcommittee comprising Feingold and Brickman to explore bringing the idea to Milwaukee, and Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El in Madison to investigate possibilities there.
Feingold said Pereles and Greenwood’s board expressed immediate interest in the idea. In fact, “I was kind of amazed at how quickly Greenwood picked up the ball and ran with this,” she said.
Both Feingold and Pereles said that religiously liberal Jews will constitute the most likely market for this service. There are signs a market does exist; Pereles at the time of the interview said two plots had already been sold.
Greenwood is unaffiliated with any synagogue or Jewish movement, and is already what Pereles called a “non-traditional Jewish cemetery.”
Unlike traditional Jewish cemeteries, it allows non-Jews to be buried there, although Jews must own the lots and no non-Jewish symbols are allowed; and it allows remains of cremations to be buried there, Pereles said.
For more information about Greenwood Cemetery, visit greenwoodjewishcemetery.org or call 414-645-1390.