Greener Than Green

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Detroit has the country’s first certified Jewish nature preserve cemetery.

A wood chip walkway leads into the new forested Hebrew Memorial Gardens (photo by Brett Mountain)

In the heart of a field of green in Roseville is a picturesque area, complete with large trees, a creek, wood-chip pathways, Michigan wildflowers and, in this warm season, even a few butterflies.

It may be the farthest thing from the flat, evenly bordered, traditional appearance of its counterparts. But this farmland-turned-forest is actually a cemetery — the new Hebrew Memorial Gardens, green both in appearance and attitude.

“The approximately 5-acre forested area, contained within the current licensed and zoned functioning Beth Moses Cemetery, is the first Jewish nature preserve cemetery section in the country to be certified by the Green Burial Council (GBC),” said Otto Dube, managing funeral director at Hebrew Memorial Chapel in Oak Park.

It joins only one other cemetery in Michigan — a non-Jewish one — to be certified by the Los Angeles-based GBC, an independent, nonprofit organization self-described as “working to encourage environmentally sustainable deathcare and the use of burial as a new means of protecting natural areas.”

“Through Green Burial, we follow unique rules that assure that the cemetery section is designated as a natural burial site — a green nature forest preserve,” Dube said.

Hebrew Memorial Chapel also has just become the first GBC-certified Jewish funeral home in Michigan, following GBC guidelines for burial and casket use.

Preserving Nature
“Hebrew Memorial Gardens is within Beth Moses Cemetery, which was organized in the 1920s,” Dube said. “But in 2000, Hebrew Memorial Park Cemetery was approached to take it over, while retaining its original name.

Unpolished natural stone markers blend in with the forest-like setting.

“There are burials on the site, but the quaint, little old cemetery is not being frequently used for new ones anymore,” Dube said. “There’s also a little chapel made of beautiful stone with a wooden roof that will be utilized in keeping with the green environmental theme.”

Traditional cemetery plots are designed with graves located in rows to maximize numbers.

“In the rest of Beth Moses, cement delineates boundaries,” Dube said. In contrast, he said Hebrew Memorial Gardens’ gravesites will follow the natural pathways of the forest without destroying natural growth.

“Instead of cement frames, tree limbs are piled to give the graves a boundary,” he said. “Traditional monuments are cut by saw and polished. Here they are dug out of the ground and not altered or polished, with the individual’s information engraved to mark the gravesite.”

During a burial at Hebrew Memorial Gardens, natural Michigan wildflowers, which continue to grow, will be placed into the grave along with earth.

“The area has been designated for the purpose of a natural preserve and will remain one for perpetuity,” Dube said.

“The section is extremely serene, very quiet and peaceful. The traffic sounds are muted and, because of all the trees, on a hot day it’s cooler; birds can be heard chirping everywhere. The plants attract rabbits and butterflies.

“At one time this was farmland, but a forest grew up right in the middle,” Dube said. “A beautiful little creek runs through it and the common name for a group of trees that grow there is ‘trees to heaven.’”

Getting Certified

Rabbi Boruch Levin and Otto Dube of Hebrew Memorial

Simply put, according to GBC, green burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact. “We are creating a way for the woods to be preserved so we don’t have to use traditional maintenance with mowing, fertilizers and pesticides and can still have a marker and everything compatible with Jewish law,” said Joe Sehee, founder and executive director of Green Burial, who recently visited Hebrew Memorial Gardens. “This is the first opportunity for a Jewish facility to reclaim end-of-life rituals. Seems like more Jewish cemeteries should be lining up.”

GBC-certified cemeteries follow a set of guidelines. “Our protocols for a cemetery includes a biological review, making sure that no rare habitat is destroyed and that burials do not degrade the ecosystem,” Sehee said.

“We don’t use metal in caskets and don’t use vaults, which were originally created to deter grave robbery. When we bury in a big metal box, it compresses and settles. When we use a wicker or bamboo casket or a low-profile pine box, the compression takes place at the time of interment.”

According to Dube, “wood is a natural product that will disintegrate, and the natural products that came from the earth are then returned back into the natural environment. Metal, a man-made product, can eventually put by-products that are not natural into the earth that may have a permanent effect on the world around us.

“The caskets we will use are all wood with non-toxic, non-hazardous materials, and there are no metal inclusions or artificial stains or finishes used. Green burial requires a white shroud, with no embalming allowed.”

More Availability
Many of GBC’s guidelines follow the lines of Jewish tradition.

“The whole Jewish process of burial is green,” said Jonathan Dorfman, an owner of the Dorfman Chapel in Farmington Hills.

A peaceful view

“A Jewish burial includes a simple, buttonless linen shroud that will go back to the earth; a kosher casket may have nails and other fasteners, but caskets without them are available. Less than 50 percent of Jewish cemeteries require a vault. Most cemeteries are grass, trees, flowers and earth — nature.

“I applaud any effort for a truly green cemetery that is a nature preserve, but from religious preparation to the choice of a casket, most Jewish cemeteries conform to the Jewish burial rite, which is already a green process.”

Both the Dorfman Chapel and the Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield use a green system of emailed yarhtzeit notification for those with computer access, something Hebrew Memorial Chapel is in the process of offering.

Most who are looking at burial options may not ask specifically for a green burial, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have the components that it includes.

As is the case at Dorfman Chapel, David Techner, a funeral director at the Ira Kaufman Chapel maintains, “Anything that is necessary for a green burial, we can do. We have pine boxes, plain and without finish. I can give you that in 10 varieties. We have shrouds and access to cemeteries that don’t require a vault. But if what someone wants is all of these things and to be buried in a Green Burial Council-certified cemetery, we, and anyone else can provide them with a burial site at Hebrew Memorial Gardens.”

Last year, the Kaufman Chapel became the first U.S. funeral home to install a geothermal heating and cooling system that draws heat from within the earth and pulls it back in for cooling, reducing electricity use by 30 to 60 percent. “Geothermal is as green as it gets,” Techner said.

Ready For Serenity
“When people come into Hebrew Memorial Chapel and say they are looking for a cemetery with trees. We can now ask them ‘What kind?’ and ‘How many?’” Dube said.

Plot locations are already marked off and set for graves to be purchased at Hebrew Memorial Gardens, with a small portion prepared to be used right away. “The first area is called the Founders Circle and is at the back of a pathway that goes off in all different directions,” Dube said.

Cost of burial in the new section is $3,900, the same as in the rest of Beth Moses Cemetery. “But it is divided differently,” Dube said. “In the other sections, the graves are $1,300, the digging is $1,300 and perpetual care is $1,300. In the new section, the digging is $1,700 and the graves are $2,200, which includes the flowers that will be placed into the grave and that will continue to grow. ”

Hebrew Memorial Chapel, the oldest Jewish funeral home in Michigan, was founded in 1916 as the Detroit Jewish Free Burial Association to assist those who could not afford to pay for burial needs. Through the years they became a full-service funeral home, while remaining the only nonprofit Jewish funeral home in the state, continuing to support the underprivileged.

Jewish And Green
From an environmentally protective standpoint, “this is a fabulous idea,” said Betsy Winkelman of the Bloomfield Township-based Michigan Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which works to bring together the teachings of Judaism with lessons of the natural world. “They should be commended for taking the lead in this area.”

The cost for cemetery certification by GBC is $500 for the first year and $295 annually; cost for a funeral home to be certified as a provider is $295 each year.

“It is truly satisfying that we are the nation’s first Jewish certified green nature preserve cemetery where an added dimension of serenity and peace can be found for loved ones, surrounded by nature in a forest-like setting,” said Rabbi Boruch E. Levin, Hebrew Memorial’s executive director.

“I am confident that Hebrew Memorial Gardens will be embraced by Metro Detroit Jewish community members. I believe this close connection to nature will bring a unique aspect of comfort and meaning to burials and visits.”

He said visitors to the site have felt “a beautiful and calming effect.”

“Hebrew Memorial Gardens, in its endeavors, will preserve thousands of trees, reduce the carbon footprint and, at the same time, provide a comforting and serene setting for mourners,” Dube said.

“Its commitment to the Jewish community and the environment is amazing. The certification process by the Green Burial Council speaks to this commitment.”

Sehee said, “We are trying to show Americans that they shouldn’t have to choose between green and a traditional Jewish burial. A person’s last act really can make a difference.”

By Shelli Liebman Dorfman, Contributing Writer

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